By BRIAN LESTER
Sometimes it’s about being at the right place at the right time, and for Justin Welch, the University of Georgia just wasn’t the place to be.
It wasn’t that he lacked the talent to compete at the highest level. His nation’s-best throw of 239-feet-3-inches in the hammer throw this spring proves he is more than talented. But there were struggles academically for the junior out of Eastwood High School.
He made a decision to make a change, and the journey has been remarkable in every way. Welch landed at the University of Findlay and life is good right now. It could get even better next week as he takes aim at a title in the hammer throw at the NCAA Division II national championships at Grand Valley State. The three-day meet begins May 22.
“This has been my best season,” Welch said. “I feel confident in my chances of competing for a championship, and things are going really well in school, too. It was the right decision to come to Findlay.”
Veteran UF head track coach Marc Arce will second that statement.
Arce knew about Welch because of the four state championships he won at Eastwood, so he isn’t surprised that Welch has thrived for the Oilers, who are ranked 13th in the country in men’s track.
“I’m not surprised, but I’m happy for him. What he has done this season has been remarkable,” Arce said. “He is from the area, so he is in his comfort zone here. He has been very successful in both school and in track.”
Welch is one of 11 Oilers competing at the national meet next week. Among the competitors are former area high school standouts Kendra Averesch (Leipsic), Lydia Guagenti (Bluffton) and freshman sensation Alex DeVincentis (Liberty-Benton).
Averesch is ranked third in D-II in the shot put with a throw of 51-7. The junior was an All-American during the indoor season and won an indoor shot put title at the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference meet.
“Kendra is right in the hunt,” Arce said. “There isn’t much separation between the top five. I would not be surprised if she did win a national championship. She is certainly capable of doing it.”
Guagenti, a sophomore will compete in the high jump. She enters the meet ranked 18th with a leap of 5-71/4.
DeVincentis will be competing in the discus and is ranked fifth with a throw of 161-8. The former discus state champion for the Eagles has had a stellar season, winning the discus title at the GLIAC outdoor meet, an accomplishment that helped her earn GLIAC Freshman Field Athlete of the Year honors.
Other competitors for the Oilers include senior Dillon Webster (800-meter run), freshman Alexander Zolotoglavyy (long jump), junior Demorrio Leggett (triple jump), sophomore Samantha Grippe (800), junior Maud Sanmiquel (400 hurdles), senior Pam Showman (heptathlon) and freshman Erica King (hammer throw).
Webster is seeded fourth in the 800 with a time of 1:49.17 and won a GLIAC title in the event at the outdoor meet. He was an All-American in the 800 at the indoor national meet.
Although most of the UF athletes competing at nationals are underclassmen, Arce said the rigorous schedule the Oilers face during the season prepares the younger athletes for what they will face at a national meet.
“We make sure they are constantly in pressure situations,” he said. “We don’t shy away from competition, and we are fortunate that we can go to some of the bigger meets like the Jesse Owens Classic and Penn Relays. Those meets prepare them well and makes it easier for them to adapt to competing at nationals.”
Welch, of course, has seen strong competition his entire collegiate career, and he credits the experience he gained at Georgia for helping him to rise to where he is today.
“It was a great experience being in some of those bigger meets at Georgia,” Welch said. “I was around a lot of great athletes, and I think the big meets bring out the best in me. I love the competition and the challenges that come with it.”
The script for Welch’s athletic career would have had a decidedly different look had he stayed at Georgia. But school proved to be a challenge.
“I was struggling, and I did look at going to another Division I school, but I wouldn’t be able to get in right away,” Welch said. “I would have had to go to a junior college first. But I knew about Findlay and it was closer to home. It was the right choice.”
And not only has he succeeded in athletics, but everything is squared away academically as well.
“It’s a better environment because everything is more personal,” Welch said. “The classes are smaller, the teachers know you by your name and if you need help with anything, the teachers are there to help you out. It’s going great.”
Arce said Welch’s success in the classroom is just as impressive as what he has done in the hammer throw this season, and that is quite a statement when one considers that his throw of 239-3 was the best throw across all divisions of the NCAA.
Welch, who said he didn’t begin to take track seriously until after his freshman year of high school, noted the key to his success has been the constant improvements he has made to his technique. He’s always looking at different ways to get better, and the extra effort has paid off.
Now, on the doorstep of something special, Welch, who will also compete in the discus next week, is ready to seize the moment.
“There are a lot of throwers capable of winning it if they have a great day, but I feel confident in my ability to win it,” Welch said. “I know that if I have my best day, I’ll be in a great position to win. It’s a great feeling to be at nationals and I’m looking forward to making the most of it.”
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