CEDAR FALLS — Competing angry has allowed Isaac Holtz to exceed projections and establish himself as the top discus thrower in the Missouri Valley Conference.
The Northern Iowa sophomore from Monticello will be battling in his second NCAA Division I West Preliminary Round competition this weekend in Austin, Texas. He’s among the Panthers positioned well to punch a ticket to Eugene, Ore. for the NCAA Championships June 7-10.
Holtz uncorked a personal record throw by nearly 13 feet as he recently defended his MVC discus title with a mark of 190-feet, 8-inches. That ranks third in UNI history and ninth among the NCAA West Region’s 48 qualifiers.
UNI throws coach Dan O’Mara characterizes Holtz as the type of athlete who steps up in the biggest meets and moments. He upset Southern Illinois’ Josh Freeman in last year’s MVC discus, and this year passed Salukis freshman Ricky Hurley, who entered the meet with the best mark in the conference.
“I saw him warming up and I was nervous about his throws to the right and he goes, ‘Coach don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of that,’” O’Mara related. “That shows his demeanor and ability to step up when it counted.
“He didn’t start off with his best throw but his second throw was the (MVC’s) furthest throw of the year, and a PR by four meters. He always seems to come through when it counts.”
Thoughts of finishing just shy of a championship are often enough to motivate the Panther sophomore.
“A lot of times I kind of picture myself standing on the second place spot on the podium and I get that knot in my stomach and think to myself how that would feel,” Holtz said. “Once we start warming up for the competition it just kind of upsets me thinking about that. It fires me up and that’s usually what keeps me going.”
Holtz is part of a strong contingent of Panthers that will be competing in the NCAA West discus competition scheduled to begin 1 p.m. Saturday in Austin, Texas. Teammates Evan Colfax, Brad Walski and true freshman Thomas Yezek are all first time qualifiers.
Nebraska, with five qualifiers, is the only school that will have more than UNI’s four competitors in the 48-man discus field.
“These guys I’ve been throwing with have been putting in the work all year long,” Holtz said of his teammates. “Every single one of us have had our ups and downs all year, but when it really mattered, when it came to conference, everybody went out there and did their jobs. It feels good to take four guys to Texas and be able to represent UNI like that.”
Holtz, who finished second in the Drake Relays discus and won a state title as a high school senior, used a redshirt his first year in the program to build strength and enhance his technique. Since stepping into the ring for competition, he has been UNI’s leader in the discus.
“I think that redshirt year made me more hungry than anything,” Holtz said. “I kind of knew I wasn’t ready to compete coming in because everybody was so much bigger and stronger in college and I was kind of out of my league.
“When I was redshirting they’d always leave on the weekends and then they’d come back and I’d see all over Twitter how they did. I made me pretty excited to want to be a part of that. When it was my turn, I was pretty fired up and ready to get going with them.”
The unique format for this weekend’s meet will offer a new challenge. Competitors only get three attempts, and have to do more waiting in between throws with larger flights of participants. A lower qualifier in an earlier flight could catch a break with favorable wind and bomb a mark into the top 12 to knock out one of the favorites.
Iowa sophomore Reno Tuufuli is the only underclassmen with a better qualifying mark than Holtz, who would love nothing more than an opportunity to compete in his first National Championship meet.
“All I’m doing is trying to hit my mark,” Holtz said. “Even if I end up placing 12th, all 12 of us get to go and have the same opportunity at nationals.
“It’s always been a huge goal of mine to make nationals. If I could go this year, I’d learn about it and kind of get a feel for it. I might not be able to go and get to finals and compete for a top spot yet, but to go there and learn this early in my career would be huge.”
In total, UNI will be taking 17 athletes to the West prelims that begin today — the school’s largest number of qualifiers since 2012. Of that group, six are part of the throws crew.
UNI junior Sarah Pate enters the hammer throw with the region’s 12th best qualifying mark as she’s battled through knee injuries to book a return to the prelims.
“She’s done a tremendous job,” O’Mara said. “She’s very fast, she’s caught on very well. If she’s able to catch the fourth turn and it stays in, I think she can make it to the final championships.”
Walski will also be competing in the shot put and hammer throw for the first time and the senior is a first time qualifier in each of his three events.
On the track, UNI senior Brandon Carnes ranks first in the 100 and fifth in the 200 in his pursuit of an opportunity to reach the national sprint finals. Jon Rus, Daurice Fountain and Cole Phillips are entered in the 110 hurdles. Lindsey Kite and Lyndsie Schinkel along with Colynn Black, Luke Johnston and Jordan Pingel are UNI qualifiers in the women’s and men’s 800.
The Panthers will also be represented by Jacob Smith in the 400 hurdles, Kassidy Sharp in the high jump and Hope Koerperich in the discus.