Des Moines, Iowa Down to his final throw in the discus, Mason Finley decided it was time to listen.
The Kansas junior was sitting in ninth at Wednesday’s NCAA championships at Drake Stadium — he’d finished in the top three the two previous years — and though his first five throws felt good, he couldn’t seem to get any energy behind them.
KU throwing coach Andy Kokhanovsky kept telling Finley that he was pulling his head, but the junior didn’t feel himself doing it.
“On my last throw,” Finley said, “I figured, ‘He must be right.’”
So Finley over-exaggerated his motions. He took extra effort to make sure his head stayed in and that he wasn’t dipping his shoulder.
After releasing the discus, Finley knew he’d thrown a good one, turning toward the gallery and offering a shrug of his shoulders as if to say, “Where was that all day?”
A few seconds later, the crowd erupted as the scoreboard flashed over from 61.02 meters to 200-2 feet.
On his final attempt, Finley had posted the second-best throw of his KU career while also jumping seven spots all the way to second place.
“It’s huge,” Finley said. “Throw is weird. It only takes one to put you in that place.”
Finley also finished as the NCAA runner-up in discus his freshman year.
Kokhanovsky admitted that Finley had been battling the technical problem of pulling his head all season.
“Finally, he just realized that it was the last throw. He could not give up,” Kokhanovsky said. “He had to go all the way, and that’s what he did.”
Truthfully, Finley was a bit fortunate to be in the finals in the first place, as the top nine throwers in the two heats advanced to the finals.
Following his three attempts in the first heat, Finley’s mark of 190 feet was only good for fifth.
He was holding onto the ninth and final spot in finals when Michigan State’s Lonnie Pugh unleashed a long throw in the second flight, and with Pugh screaming out his satisfaction, it looked like Finley was about to drop to 10th place.
A few seconds later, though, meet officials declared that Pugh had fouled, which wiped away the long throw and kept Finley in ninth.
Three more competitors followed with throws shorter than 190 feet, meaning that Finley snuck his way into the final throws.
“In the competition, I started tightening up, thinking about, ‘Will I make it? Will I not?’ It just kept bringing me down,” Finley said. “Last one, it’s like, ‘What am I waiting for? I can’t just tighten up again. That’s obviously not working. I’ve got to let this one fly.’”
The KU women’s team, which should be in the running for the national championship this weekend, also picked up its first three team points Wednesday, as Heather Bergmann took sixth in the javelin.
The junior put a little extra pressure on herself following a meeting at the team hotel Tuesday, as the KU coaches talked about the importance of the women’s team getting off to a good start.
“I was like, ‘Wait, I’m the first one (competing). That’s going to be me,’” Bergmann said.
The Concordia native’s best throw came after a distraction.
Just as she was starting her approach with the javelin during her second throw in finals, one of the men’s discus throwers ran across the grass about 25 feet in front of her.
At first, Bergmann wasn’t pleased, stopping her momentum before making her way back to the beginning of the runway.
“I think it helped me calm down a little bit,” Bergmann said, “which is kind of strange, because it should have done the opposite.”
After refocusing, Bergmann launched a throw of 163 feet, 2 inches — a toss that was nearly three feet better than her top mark at regionals (160-3).
It also was an improvement from last year’s NCAA championships, when Bergmann took seventh.
“It feels good, just because sixth place is a decent amount of points, and it’s All-American,” Bergmann said. “I didn’t get last or just miss out on finals. Hopefully, it started a wave, and it can keep going.”
KU sophomore Demi Payne just missed out on scoring team points in the pole vault, tying for 13th with a top clearance of 13 feet, 7 1/4 inches.
The KU women also qualified two athletes for finals later in the week.
Sophomore Diamond Dixon posted the fourth-fastest time in the 400 preliminaries (51.51 seconds), while senior Rebeka Stowe had the fifth-best mark in the 3000 steeplechase (10:01.06).
On the men’s side, KU freshman Michael Stigler qualified for the 400 hurdles finals by finishing second in his heat with a time of 49.91 seconds.
Two other Jayhawks failed to qualify for the finals in their respective events: junior Kyle Clemons in the 400 (11th-best time, 45.44 seconds) and junior Paris Daniels in the 100 (20th-best time, 11.53 seconds). Clemons’ time was his best ever and also the second-best in school history.
Following three completed events out of 21, the KU men are tied for fifth place with eight team points, while the KU women are tied for 13th with three points.