Former Ball Players Switch To Javelin
Feb. 23, 2011
Originally printed Feb. 23, 2011 in the Greenville Daily Reflector
By Ronnie Woodward
When East Carolina track and field throws coach David Price notices one of his unique javelin throwers is frustrated, he busts out his best confidence-building tool -- a video of javelin legend and world-record holder Jan Zelezny awkwardly pitching a baseball in 1996 while he was in Atlanta for the Summer Olympics.
Price uses the video to show ECU's Matthew McConaughey, Spencer Barrick and Niki Tozzi that they are good at something that Zelezny isn't, as all three have used their prior experience in baseball or softball as a building block for successful collegiate careers throwing the javelin.
The process hasn't been easy -- Barrick admitted that he held the javelin backwards the first time he picked it up -- but all three finished third or better at the Conference USA championships last season after coming to college without prior experience in the sport.
Barrick was handpicked by Price after walk-on baseball tryouts, and the same happened with Tozzi after softball tryouts. McConaughey was convinced by Barrick and Price to join the track team after a successful high school career as a pitcher in Myersville, Md.
Price said the common denominator with all three is arm speed.
"I figured there's 28,000 students at East Carolina University and somebody has a fast arm," said Price, who added that there is more math involved in throwing a baseball or softball than a javelin. "The nice thing about javelin is there's no real target you have to hit. It's just about picking something up and throwing it as far as you can."
Barrick, a senior, is the prototypical athlete Price was seeking. He was a strong-armed outfielder in high school who didn't have the best accuracy.
A couple of days after trying out for the Pirate baseball team as a freshman, Barrick got a phone call, and the coach on the other end of the line surprised him.
"I thought I had made the baseball team but the guy said he was coach Price and he wanted me to throw the javelin," Barrick said. "It threw me off a little bit but javelin has kind of become my new baseball."
The outdoor track season begins March 12 and all three will be looking to build on last year's success.
McConaughey won the C-USA championship last year as a freshman, and Barrick finished second. Tozzi finished third on the women's side and recorded four first-place finishes in 2010.
McConaughey earned a spot in the NCAA championships, which is something he didn't think was possible after a standout prep career in baseball and football, but no experience throwing a javelin.
"It's been crazy," he said. "I had no idea what I was doing (at first) and it was probably one of the most awkward things I've ever done."
ECU's javelin throwers devote much of their fall and winter to practice, while most of their track teammates participate in the indoor season.
They spend plenty of days working on technique on a field -- ironically -- not too far from the school's baseball and softball complexes.
"There's a lot repetitive practice on technique out here," said Tozzi, a junior who played shortstop in high school. "We practice year-round for about two and a half months of competition."
Price can relate to the inexperienced javelin throwers, as he described himself as a self-taught javelin thrower who has a background in baseball, football and track.
East Carolina track and field coach Curt Kraft called Price one of the best throws coaches in the country, partly because of his ability to think outside of the box, of which Tozzi, Barrick and McConaughey are prime examples.
"This did not happen by mistake," Kraft said. "When coach Price saw Matt, Niki and Spencer, he recognized immediately that they have the ability to throw something far. ... He knew there was a correlation and he had a plan in his head of where he was going with it."