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Having long ago cemented their status as two of the top throwers in the storied history of Kent State track and field, Danniel Thomas of Jamaica and Reggie Jagers III of Cleveland are set to shoot for the stars this week.
Thomas will vie for national titles in both the shot put and discus after finishing runner-up in the discus three years ago, while Jagers will compete for a national crown in the discus at the 2017 NCAA Outdoor Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
Both redshirt seniors have achieved nearly every goal imaginable besides a national championship. But that could all change with one perfectly executed heave this week.
“Danniel and I both have a good chance to be NCAA champions,” said Jagers. “We've both been to the NCAA (National Championships) every year since we've been here, so just that confidence level — having been in that same ring, it's a familiar sight. It kind of feels like a home court advantage. We just need to go in there like we've been there before and dominate.”
Thomas enters the national event ranked second in the country in the shot put with a Kent State, Mid-American Conference and Jamaican national record toss of 60-8 — under an inch below the national leader and 10th-best in the world. She is also seeded fourth in the discus.
Jagers finished seventh in the discus at last year's NCAA Outdoor Championships to earn First Team All-American honors, and has exceeded that distance by nearly seven feet this season.
“I think they can both come out with a win,” said Golden Flashes associate head coach/throws coach Nathan Fanger. “Danniel could win both events depending on how she feels. If she feels good and goes for a (personal best), we can't control what the others do. Reggie is in the same boat. I think there are probably four or five guys that can win the national championship in the (men's) discus. It depends on how he's lined up on the day and if he feels good.”
If heart determines the national champion in their respective events, you have to love their chances.
Like every other thrower who has ever entered Kent State's track and field program, Thomas and Jagers were extremely talented but somewhat flawed as freshmen. Thomas was considered too short to become an elite performer in the shot put or discus at just 5-foot-5, while Jagers was raw — having not taken track seriously until late in his high school career at Solon.
Over the past five years as Flashes, they've separated themselves by adding strength to their athleticism through a rigorous training regimen fueled by their intense drive to succeed at the highest level.
“We know what to look for in our athletes, and we've got a good programming system at Kent State. But it takes the athletic development, the want-to and the desire for the athlete to get better, and they've both developed extremely well through hard work,” said Fanger. “We've had a pretty good throws tradition here at Kent, and the level that they're on now far exceeds just about everyone. It's a testament to their determination and athletic ability.”
DANNIEL THOMAS: SHORT BUT SWEET
Thomas chose to attend Kent State without ever visiting the campus, and 'called her shot' during her first face-to-face chat with Fanger.
“Coach (Fanger) picked me up at the airport, and we had a conversation about the Olympics. That was five years ago, and I remember it vividly,” said Thomas. “I was telling (Fanger) my goals and where I wanted to be in the next four years. Right when I was leaving Jamaica one of the coaches was asking me why I chose Kent, because the coach there didn't produce any Olympians. I remember telling that coach I could be (Fanger's) first Olympian. It turns out that I was his first Olympian.”
Thomas became just the second female in Kent State history to compete in the Olympics, joining Mogadore native Kim Kreiner (2004, 2008) when she represented Jamaica in the 2016 Rio Summer Games. She competed in the shot put, finishing 25th.
“Sometimes you have these goals in your mind, and if you work hard enough it will come. That's what I did,” said Thomas. “I knew where I wanted to be and we worked on it.”
Fanger expected Thomas to be taller than 5-foot-5, and immediately began contemplating a switch to the hammer throw event when he first set his sights on the Jamaican star.
“Speed is the name of the game in throwing. The faster the implement's coming out of the hand, the further it tends to go,” Fanger explained. “A lot of times the longer and taller you are, the more leverage you have and the easier it's going to be. Neither (Thomas nor Jagers) are extremely tall, but that next gear — the speed aspect and the power aspect — can overcome the length and take out the tall and long ones sometimes.”
When Thomas arrived at Kent State speed was her strength, but she's become an incredibly powerful athlete during her collegiate years.
“She's got the power development level right now to be world class. She's top 10 in the world. I think she can be top five, top three, and on any day she could win not only at the NCAA but at the World Championships,” said Fanger. “An athlete can only do so much when they're so strong, then they can do a little more as they get stronger. That strength level changes your technique. It's slowly been progressing from day one.”
Thomas may have attempted to rush that progression a little when she suffered a wrist injury on her throwing hand while lifting weights that forced her to redshirt last year.
“I was working really hard, but I wasn't working smart,” said Thomas. “The injury set me back a few months, but I learned from it. I think it was a blessing in disguise, because the reason I'm where I am right now is because of that injury.”
Thomas recovered in time to compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“After the Olympics when I came back (to Kent State) in the fall, (Fanger) and I sat down and came up with the things we needed to work on,” said Thomas. “We did that in the early part of the season. That's how I approached the whole season, focused on improving in certain areas, and it definitely paid off.”
Thomas broke her own school records in the shot put and discus several times this spring, and was named Great Lakes Region Women's Field Athlete of the Year by the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association after capturing MAC titles and recording the region's top marks in both events.
Thomas will compete in both events at the 2017 NCAA National Championships, with the shot put set for Thursday night followed by the discus on Saturday. She'll enter the meet brimming with confidence, but focused solely on doing her best and letting the chips fall where they may.
“I don't think about winning because if I do then I'm not relaxed, and when I'm not relaxed I can't focus on my technique. That's the mistake that I've made in the past,” said Thomas. “It's my last NCAA, so it would be nice if I can do extremely well in both events. But I just want two (personal bests). If I get both of those it doesn't matter what my position is, I'll honestly be happy with it.”
No matter what happens this week, bigger and better things could soon be in store for Thomas.
“I have two weeks off, then I fly out to Jamaica for the Jamaican national tryouts at the end of June. Then I'll be at the World Championships in London for the rest of the summer,” she said. “I at least want to do one more Olympics. A lot of the females that are dominating the (shot put) right now are getting older, and soon they will start to retire. I honestly think I can be one of the next generation of really successful throwers in the world. That's my biggest goal going forward for the next three years at least.”
REGGIE JAGERS III: NATURAL BORN THROWER
Jagers once gave up football to focus on track and field. He may someday soon find himself back on the gridiron.
What NFL scout wouldn't be interested in at least checking out a 6-foot-2, 255-pound, 22-year-old man with the power and explosiveness to throw a discus over 200 feet who can also bench press 475 pounds and deadlift 675?
“I played (football) in high school and always loved the sport,” said Jagers. “I've talked to the (football) coaches at Kent. I'm pretty developed now, pretty explosive, and I'm only 22 years old so I'm just starting to mature. (Football) is something I'd be interested in looking into.”
Jagers' original interest in the throwing events stemmed from his ability to toss the pigskin far with relative ease.
“I knew I had the arm when I played football, or really anything I did throwing-wise,” said Jagers, who started his track career as a junior at Solon High School. “Track was my third sport in high school after football and wrestling. At the end of my junior year I was in the weight room talking to Nate Hoff, a pretty good football player for Solon, and he was telling me maybe I should give (track and field) a go and I did. It just took off from right there.”
Jagers was indeed a natural thrower. After one year of track and field he made the Junior USA Team, and was national runner-up in the discus at the 2012 Junior Olympics before he really even knew what he was doing.
“You quickly realize that throwing isn't actually an arm sport. There's a whole lot more to it than that,” said Jagers. “But my arm always gives me an edge on everybody. I know how to use my legs now, know how to use my body to throw the ball, the discus or the hammer, but even when my technique isn't on point or perfect I can always just find that magical release to get it to where I want it.”
Fanger didn't mind inheriting the raw version of Jagers back in 2013.
“Sometimes I like to start them fresh, because they don't have those bad habits ingrained,” said Fanger. “A lot of times kids will isolate themselves, throw the shot or the discus only starting in seventh or eighth grade, and they form little nuances that are hard or impossible to break. Sometimes it's best to wait to see how you develop as an athlete and how as you are as a person.”
Jagers broke into the collegiate ranks in the discus, qualifying for nationals as a true freshman then claiming his first MAC title in the event as a sophomore in 2014. After redshirting in 2015 Jagers earned First Team All-American honors by finishing seventh in the discus at the 2016 NCAA National Championships with a toss of 195-5.
Having enjoyed immense success in the discus throughout his track and field career, no one would have blamed Jagers for keeping all of his training efforts focused on his best event during his senior season. Instead, Jagers took on more challenges then ever by adding the hammer throw and weight throw to his plate.
“My coaches wanted me to throw hammer and weight throw to get points. I tried to think of it as a way to help my team out,” said Jagers. “I felt like the hammer throw would not help me progress in the discus. But having that aggressiveness, learning that new technique, not doing it for me but for my teammates — that propelled me to my success in all the events this season.”
Jagers recorded the second-best weight throw in KSU history, and cracked the top 10 in the hammer throw for a program that's produced a national champion (Matthias Tayala, 2014) and three Olympians in that event (Al Schoterman, 1972; Jacques Accambray, 1972; Jud Logan, 1984, 1988, 1996, 2000).
“I was practicing once a week and going against real hammer throwers who only do that and beating them all. I thought if I could do that well in an event I just picked up, imagine what I could do in discus – my bread and butter,” said Jagers. “It boosted my confidence level, told me you can do anything you put your mind to if you're not selfish and think about other people.”
Jagers won the hammer throw and the discus at the 2017 MAC Outdoor Championships, and set a new school record in the discus this spring with a toss of 202-3.
“Strength levels are the biggest thing that made a difference for Reggie this year,” said Fanger. “Technically we didn't do much different, but the stronger you are you tend to have a little more speed if you can keep your technique clean. I think the power development this year was a big difference for him.”
Having developed into one of the top throwers in Kent State track and field history, giving up football back in high school has proven to be a wise choice for Jagers.
“I'm happy with my decision,” said Jagers. “This sport really challenges you. It's not like you can just run up and hit somebody like in football. There are so many facets to throwing. You have to have your body in top form, you have to execute within a fraction of a second inside the ring, emotions affect your technique so you have to stay calm. I'm glad I chose track and I chose Kent.”
Jagers, who will compete in the discus at the NCAA meet this Friday along with his brother Phil from rival Akron, is hoping to have more choices to make after his collegiate track and field career ends this week.
“I definitely feel like throwing has been good to me, and I'll see how that goes professionally,” he said. “I want to get invited to the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. They have a lot of top American throwers, the No. 1 and No. 3 throwers in the world in the shot put, a top 10 thrower in the discus. I competed against them in the NCAAs and they moved on to a higher level, and I want to follow them. Or maybe something could happen with football. We'll just see where everything goes.”
REGGIE JAGERS III
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Only freshman to qualify for 2013 NCAA National Championships in discus; 2014 MAC Outdoor champion, NCAA National Championships qualifier in discus; 2016 First Team All-American in discus (finished 7th at NCAA National Championships); took first in discus and hammer throw at 2017 MAC Outdoor Championships; holds school record in discus (202-3), second-best mark in weight throw (72-2.5).
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: All-American in the discus as a freshman in 2013; captured shot put title at 2014 MAC Indoor Championships; 2014 Second Team All-American in indoor shot put; 2014 MAC Outdoor champion in discus, shot put; 2014 First Team All-American in discus (national runner-up), Second Team All-American in shot put; 2015 MAC Indoor champion in shot put; 2015 MAC outdoor champion in shot put, discus; represented Jamaica in 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, finishing 25th in shot put; 2017 MAC Indoor champion in shot put; 2017 MAC Outdoor champion in shot put, discus; currently ranks 10th in the world and second in the nation in shot put (60-8); owns school records in shot put (60-8), discus (194-10).