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Blanchette: WSU’s Bartlett has all the right tools

Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)
Sports columnist John Blanchette. (SR)

Poll 100 guys, and 99 will tell you their favorite tool – non-power division – is the hammer. Unless they’re lying.

The other guy? He’ll say the sledgehammer.

Screwdrivers and wrenches can make and fix, sure, but with a hammer you can always hit something hard – and then, just for self-gratification, hit it harder.

This is sort where Joe Bartlett finds himself in the final stages of his evolution as a shot-and-discus man for the track and field team at Washington State – and, man, is it ever refreshing.

The big galumphs who send iron hurtling toward the heavens usually spend more time fussing over “technique” than ballerinas and banjo pickers, and inevitably the upshot is how turning a toe in this direction or squaring the hips just so or honing the angle of release will result in fantastic gains and far-off chalk lines being obliterated.

Not so with Joe.

“I’m really not a technician,” he said. “I’m good enough not to fall down – that’s enough for me.”

Has self-deprecation has ever been so inspirational?

Bartlett jumped on the horn this week in advance of Saturday’s dual with Washington, the 101st head-to-head meeting of the Cougs and Dawgs on the track. For one day each season, anyway, the scoreboard is not the most obsolete piece of equipment since the bamboo pole. And if Wazzu coach Rick Sloan brings something of a holy-war mentality to the day, he’s not necessarily the only one.

“There’s something about seeing that purple,” Bartlett said, “that gives you a little extra incentive.”

It better. Aside from a tennis match two weeks ago, Wazzu teams haven’t won the day against the Huskies straight-up all school year.

But the Husky meet has always been a good day for Bartlett. The senior from Reno, Nev., has never lost to UW in the shot, and only as a freshman finished behind a Husky in the discus. He’s also sucked it up and humbled himself in the hammer ring for a coveted point. It’s those nuances of strategy and sacrifice that can make the track meet as engaging as Cougar-Husky basketball game, especially if the strategy there is to insert a stone-cold sub to air-ball the winning 3.

It’s the winning that interests Bartlett this weekend, though he’s impatient to finally hit 60 feet in the shot, too – something “that has to happen in the next couple of weeks.”

What gives him hope are some substantial strength gains over the past year. If he’s taken the wrench-and-screwdriver work as far as he can (“Oh, I make myself sound worse than I am,” he backtracked), two extra shifts a week hammering in the weight room have added 30 pounds to each of his lifts – to 405 on the bench, 360 on cleans and, with the help of a Pit Shark machine that takes some pressure off a tweaked back, more than 800 pounds squatting.

What chance does a 16-pound ball have?

“With the shot, even if you’re having a bad day, the madder you get, the further you can throw it,” he said. “In the discus, you’ve just got to call it good.”

Bartlett’s route to the track and to Pullman had just enough twists to make it a Wazzu kind of story. Because his first love, naturally, was baseball. He had a Jamie Moyer fastball in the eighth grade – though his mother “used to call me ‘Wild Thing.’ “

He got recruiting letters in football – from Nevada, Louisville, Purdue and the Huskies, no less – but “saw a lot of the political side in high school so I stuck with track where you can either achieve things or you can’t.”

Nevertheless, he has noodled with playing football with the semester of eligibility he has left.

“I went down to (Mike) Leach’s office and left my number,” he said. “But they’ve kind of given me the run-around, so I think I’m ready to get on with my life.”

That will mean a job in law enforcement, probably back home, and shedding the high-profile side of his Wazzu existence: He’s a bouncer at the campus bar, Valhalla.

“You know the college students you see in movies?” he said. “Well, that’s what it is here. The biggest stereotype in our bar is all the frat brothers who come in – in their flip-flops, snap-back hats, tank tops and shades on at midnight. A few try to act like they’re hard, but for the most part everyone knows everyone and it’s just friends getting together.

“Wazzu’s got that party rep and there are a lot of kids living up to it. I don’t know how they do it on Tuesday and Wednesday nights.”

Hey, it’s just a bunch of guys, reaching for the favorite tool in their belts.

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