By DAVE HANNEMAN
She crouches in the ring, a tensed coiled spring of energy and expectation.
A swivel left, a swivel right.
A slide step.
A spin, a turn, then faster as her arm, cocked back, sweeps forward, launching — how many thousands of times has it been? — 2.2 pounds of metal as far as her mind and muscle can fling it, ending up with her hand silhouetted against a cloud-spattered sky as if she’s reaching for a little bit of heaven.
Maybe she was.
“I was like, ‘If God wants me to go to state I will go to state. If he doesn’t, I won’t.’ Really, it was up to Him,” said Zaresha Neal, Findlay High School’s record-holder in the girls discus and shot put and ranked among the best in Ohio heading into the Division I state track and field meet this weekend at Ohio State University’s Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium.
Neal’s faith has served her well, especially in times when it seemed she was hitting more walls than records. She won a Three Rivers Athletic Conference championship in the discus as a sophomore, and was runner-up in the event a year later. But she failed to qualify for the regional in the discus as a junior, and finished a disappointing 10th in the shot.
A trip to the state meet, something her sister Kyesha had accomplished just four years before and a long-time goal of Zaresha’s, was out of the question.
Frustration fueled doubt.
“At one point I did want to give it up. I wanted to be good like all the other throwers, but I just thought I wasn’t good enough. I always made it to regionals but got stuck,” Zaresha Neal said of her track career.
“It took a lot of prayer, and a lot of people praying for me. It was like I didn’t know what I wanted to do, what God wanted me to do. Should I stick with it? Should I do this? Should I do that?
“Then it was like God said, ‘Don’t worry, I have you and I’m going to comfort you. Don’t give up because you’ve worked too hard, you’ve made so many sacrifices. It’s not worth it to give up now. Just have faith.’
“Having faith was such a blessing because, honestly, making it to state, finally getting that achievement for working hard, staying those extra five or 10 minutes in the rain at practice or staying up late to get that paper done (for school) because I was at practice longer, it was all so well worth it.
“It is so relieving to finally be getting that breakthrough.”
For Neal, it all came to fruition during the regional meet at Amherst Steele High School.
Competing in the shot put on the first day of the meet, Neal earned her first bid to the state meet when she uncorked a personal best and school-record throw of 44 feet 11/2 inches. She placed third in the event, but the Amherst Regional produced the top four qualifying marks of the 16 Division I shot putters who have qualified for the state meet.
Two days later, Neal returned to Amherst to compete in the discus. And the results were even more impressive.
Neal already owned the school record in the event, posting a distance of 149-11 in winning the TRAC title this season. She was in danger of missing the finals when her first two throws went out of bounds. But Findlay High throwers coach Dave Sprouse made a slight adjustment and Neal delivered, advancing with a new school record throw of 150-10.
Neal would shatter that mark by almost 15 feet, winning the regional title with a throw of 164-5 on her second attempt in the finals. It was more than a once-in-a-lifetime, lightning-in-a-bottle moment though. Her first throw in the finals went 158-5. Her last 162-0.
“It was God for sure,” she said.
“I’m in the ring, OK, and, I’m, like, nervous. And when I get nervous I do really bad. So I was, like, ‘God, please help me calm down.’ And I knew that He was with me, that I wasn’t alone, and I was, like, ‘OK, you’ve been doing this for so long that you just need to do what you already know how to do.
“Coach said I was already in the finals, and to just go for it. So I said a little prayer and went after it.”
“We don’t measure all of her throws in practice. But we’d seen her throwing in the mid 150s, so we knew she was capable of that,” Sprouse said.
Neal’s mark of 164-5 is the best of any of the 16 state qualifiers in the Division I girls discus. It’s also the 12th best throw in the country by any female high school thrower and second in Ohio only to the 171-5 by McComb’s Molly Leppelmeier earlier this season.
A three-time state placer himself in both the shot and discus (1982, ’83, ’84), Sprouse is in his second year coaching the throwers on the Findlay High track team. And while no prep coach can retire on supplemental contracts alone, the job has perks outsiders never see.
“I’ve worked with three throwers now that have gone on to state and ‘Z’, well she’s way up there. She’s one of the hardest workers we’ve ever had and she deserves every bit of it,” Sprouse said.
“She’s feeling more comfortable with her technique, she more sound with her footwork. She cracked a big one (at regional), but I don’t think she’s done yet.
“You know, you latch onto these kids that really want to work at it. I love seeing what she had been able to do. That’s why we do it. We want our kids to do their best, and when they do, that’s our reward.”
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By DAVE HANNEMAN