Four Hawks head to NJCAA nationals

Four Hawks head to NJCAA nationals

Hagerstown Community College track and field coach Mike Spinnler has always made it a goal to qualify as many athletes as possible for the NJCAA National Championships.

This year, four Hawks have qualified for the meet, which will begin Thursday at Gowans Stadium in Hutchinson, Kansas.

Jacob Pryor (pole vault), Jason Hutzler (high jump) and Michael Belcher (discus and shot put) all qualified on the men's side, while Tiffany Warnick (heptathlon) is the lone HCC woman to qualify.

"We are thrilled," said Spinnler. "We've got not just four qualifiers, but four people who should make some noise out there."

Pryor heads into the competition with national experience, having placed fourth in the pole vault at the indoor championships in March to garner All-American status.

"From the first experience, I learned that first attempts are a really big deal," said Pryor. "I also learned that I'll have a lot of good guys to compete with, so it'll be good."

After entering the indoor meet seeded 11th, Pryor will enter the outdoor competition as the third seed with a qualifying height of 15 feet, 7 inches, which he cleared at the Shippensburg Paul Kaiser Classic.

"I've been fairly consistent with my heights since indoors," said Pryor. "I had a really good jump at Shippensburg, but I know I can definitely get higher."

Pryor will compete for the title on Saturday, while also trying to reach 16 feet.

"The main goal going in is to win," said Pryor. "I'm going in seeded third and I think with some good first attempts I can come out with the win, but it'll be tough. I definitely think getting 16 feet is possible, too."

Belcher's qualifying in the discus came down to his very last throw at the Jim Kehoe Twilight meet at the University of Maryland on May 5 — the last meet of the season before nationals for the Hawks. Belcher's throw measured 150-3 to earn his spot in Kansas.

"If I didn't throw it then, my season would've been over," said Belcher. "I was 11 centimeters off earlier in the day, so I knew I could do it. I just needed to put a little bit more into it."

Belcher almost stopped competing after graduating from Urbana in 2015.

"I didn't think I'd ever get to this point" said Belcher. "I didn't start track until late in high school and I figured after that I would be done. I didn't think I'd be good enough."

Belcher will enter the competition Saturday aiming for a new personal best.

"I would like to throw 50 meters (164 feet)," said Belcher. "I'm not seeded toward the top, so nobody is expecting me to do too much and that'll allow me to relax and throw a personal best."

Belcher will compete in the shot put on Friday.

After finishing his second season of basketball, Hutzler decided he finally wanted to give track a go. In his first season ever, Hutzler cleared 6-8 in the high jump to qualify.

"I've always wanted to do track because I was athletic and felt as though I was a fast individual," said Hutzler. "I had never done high jump, but one day I told Coach (Andy) Reid I wanted to do high jump."

While originally focusing on sprints, Hutzler has found his specialty in the high jump. In his first competition, Hutzler cleared 6-5, and followed it up with his 6-8 performance at the Jim Kehoe meet.

"I didn't expect to be a national qualifier in high jump. If anything, I expected to in sprints," said Hutzler. "It was a great experience clearing that height and for the limited time I've been doing this, it's been pretty special."

"Jason is just like a Disney movie," Spinnler said. "Doing his first high jump competition two weeks ago in basketball shoes, and six days later winning the Jim Kehoe Twilight Invitational against Division I athletes, jumping 6-8 to qualify for nationals."

While transferring to a four-year school to play basketball was his original plan, Hutzler said his early success in high jump may change that.

"I'm weighing my options right now," said Hutzler. "I received scholarship interest from the University of Maryland off of my performance there and I would've never expected that to happen out of the blue. It was amazing. I didn't see myself as a track athlete, and it's great to know that they do see something."

"I spent 45 minutes on the phone two days after the Jim Kehoe meet with Maryland's high jump coach," said Spinnler. "He said he had never seen a guy jump that high with a rudimentary approach. With Jason, the sky is the limit in the high jump."

Hutzler's goal for Saturday is simple.

"My expectation is to be number one, to be a national champion," said Hutzler. "You expect to get great results out of all the hard work you put in."

Warnick will be the busiest of the four Hawks competing, as she will tackle seven events across Thursday and Friday.

On Thursday, Warnick will compete in the 100-meter hurdles, high jump, shot put and 200. On Friday, she tackles the long jump, javelin and 800.

"I'm excited to go and compete against a high level of competition," said Warnick. "I just want to go in and improve my marks in each event and get a much better score."

Warnick came to HCC from Northern Garrett with plenty of experience in jumps and sprints, which made the transition to heptathlete that much easier.

"The coaches asked me do it because I already did multiple events," said Warnick. "I had only ever done two of the seven events, but Coach Reid really helped me get into it.

"The hurdles are my toughest event. It's way out of my comfort zone and when I get into competition, there's a lot of mind games."

Warnick earned her qualifying mark of 3,789 points at the Morgan State Legacy Classic in April, and will look to greatly improve in her second heptathlon ever.

"I didn't really think I did that well in that heptathlon," said Warnick. "I was really intimidated by the other people and I feel like that's why I didn't do as well as I wanted. I've had a lot of practice since then and I feel like I can do a lot better."

For Spinnler, getting athletes to qualify is what makes coaching an exciting job.

"For a coach like me, that's what this program is all about," he said. "You try to offer opportunities to local student athletes that track and field is their love and get them exposed to high-level competition. Hopefully that competition gets them to qualify for JUCO nationals and that allows them to get exposed to their potential future institutions, which is really exciting to see happen."