By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The next Summer Olympics will be held in Brazil, and Martin Maric would not be surprised to see Filip Mihaljevic and Jordan Young in Rio de Janeiro, competing in track & field for Croatia and Canada, respectively, in 2016.
“It would surprise me not to see them there, actually,” said Maric, a University of Virginia assistant coach who works with the team’s throwers.
A glance at UVa’s 2014-15 roster reveals that Mihaljevic and Young are only sophomores. Yet they’ve already established themselves as the best throwers in program history.
Between them they hold five school records: the 6-7, 250-pound Mihaljevic in the outdoor shot put (20.16m), indoor shot put (19.63m), and discus (63.11m), an outdoor event; the 6-7, 295-pound Young in the hammer throw (70.73m) and weight throw (22.92m), an indoor event.
Young ranks second all-time at UVa in the outdoor shot put (19.80m), discus (62.27m) and indoor shot put (19.15m).
“There haven’t been many situations in NCAA history where you have two guys that are as versatile as those two are,” said Bryan Fetzer, UVa’s director of track & field and cross country.
The NCAA outdoor championships start Wednesday at historic Hayward Field on the University of Oregon’s campus, and Mihaljevic and Young lead the group of seven men from UVa competing in Eugene.
Young is the only male athlete to qualify for three individual events at this NCAA meet. Mihaljevic will compete in two events for the second straight year. In 2014, he earned first-team All-America honors in both the shot put and discus, placing seventh and eighth in those events, respectively.
Sometimes, Fetzer noted, an athlete will qualify for the NCAA meet in two individual events without being a legitimate title contender in one (or both) of them. Young and Mihaljevic are different.
“To make it and to be two of the — I don’t want to say favorites — but two individuals that have a really strong chance to take care of business and score, that’s rare,” Fetzer said.
The Wahoos’ other coaches often tease Maric, who joined Fetzer’s staff in September 2012, about his good fortune.
“We joke on the staff that the youngest coach hit the jackpot early on in his career, because you can go an entire career and not have a Filip or a Jordan,” Fetzer said. “And to have both of them within the first three years of coaching, it’s just not normal.”
As a University of California senior in 2009, Maric won the NCAA title in the discus, and he represented his native Croatia at the Olympics in 2008 and ’12. Coaching Mihaljevic and Young has been rewarding for him, Maric said, and not only because they are elite throwers.
“That would mean nothing if they were not very dedicated, very respectful, very studious and focused people,” Maric said.
Maric’s presence on Fetzer’s staff has helped attract elite throwers to UVa. Mihaljevic, who like Maric has ties to the renowned ASK Split athletics club in Croatia, enrolled at Virginia in January 2014.
Young transferred to UVa from Arizona after the 2013-14 academic year, in part because he’d seen on video what Miheljevic accomplished under Maric’s tutelage last spring.
“This tall, skinny guy, he’s throwing bombs,” Young said. “That said a lot about the coach, if he can get Filip there. I knew coming in that the coach must be amazing, and I thought I’d do well here.”
Once Young decided to leave Arizona, where his relationship with his coach had soured, his primary contact at UVa was Pete Watson, a fellow Canadian.
Watson, who coaches the men’s distance runners at Virginia, “really talked up Martin, because Martin’s too humble to say anything about himself,” Young said, laughing.
Mihaljevic and Young challenge each other in training and in competition, but theirs is a good-natured and positive rivalry.
“I love him,” Young said of Mihaljevic. “Right when I came here, we just got off to a great start. We really enjoy each other, just cracking jokes with each other. He was beating me by a lot at first, but I kept threatening him that I was going to come for him, and sure enough I’m getting there.”
Mihaljevic said: “We push each other every day in practice and in the weight room, and it definitely helps a lot. It’s hard to lift and practice by myself, what I did last year … Jordan’s a great training partner and a great friend.”
Each wins his share of their battles.
“They go back and forth, which is amazing,” Maric said. “They’re happy for each other in the same way. That’s the most beneficial thing for them, that positive energy: how much they respect each other, like each other, and obviously go after each other, because they are [among] the top throwers in the nation.”
Young is the more flamboyant of the two. For last month’s ACC championships in Tallahassee, Fla., he broke out an orange Mohawk, further evidence of how he’s embraced life as a `Hoo.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Young, who’s known Virginia football player Trent Corney since their high school days in Canada. “I achieved every goal that I wanted and then destroyed every goal that I wanted. It was a great year. Phenomenal. Great decision in my life, and I love it.”
At the NCAA indoor championships in March, Young placed fourth in the weight throw. It’s possible, then, that he could finish 2014-15 with All-America honors in four events, which would be a remarkable display of versatility.
“He’s definitely a unique thrower in the world,” Mihaljevic said.
Maric agreed. “It’s very unusual. If you go back in the records I don’t think you’ll find anybody that’s that good at those four events at that level … I think with good work, smart work, he can change history of some records at nationals, not just UVa.”
The challenge for Young, Fetzer said, is to “maintain and improve on his focus and continue to make that progression and increase his level of commitment and really work on the little things. Little things equal big things in our sport, and sports in general. But if he can do that, he can definitely go down in NCAA history.”
At the ACC meet, where Virginia finished second in the team standings, Young placed second in the hammer, second in the discus, and third in the shot put.
Mihaljevic swept the shot put and discus titles in Tallahassee, but Young, because he earned the most team points, was named the meet’s most valuable male field performer.
“It’s funny watching them poke fun at each other,” Fetzer said. “It was kind of humorous, actually, with that, because Filip says, `I’ve got two titles,’ and Jordan says, `I’ve got the MVP trophy.’ It’s kind of a good mix.”
Mihaljevic, who weighed about 230 pounds when he arrived at UVa, may be closer to 275 by the time he leaves. He’s grown in other ways, too. His English has improved in his 18 months at the University, and he’s more comfortable in his surroundings.
“Charlottesville’s my second home now,” said Mihaljevic, whom the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association this week named its Southeast Region field athlete of the year. (Maric was named the Southeast Region’s assistant coach of the year.)
His first semester at UVa was difficult, Mihaljevic recalled, “especially the first two and three months that I didn’t know what I had to do in school. How do I do assignments, how do I do anything, how do I study for exams? But after that I just figured everything out.”
An environmental sciences major, Mihaljevic said he has a 3.2 grade-point average. “So, yeah, I think I’m doing well,” he said, smiling.
At last year’s NCAA outdoor championships, Young finished 14th in the hammer throw, a performance that disappointed him.
This year, Young said, “I want to be All-American in at least one event, and hopefully the three. Three would be the perfect situation. [But] if everything goes wrong and I’m not even an All-American in one, then I had a phenomenal season, surpassed every expectation that I could have imagined, and I’ve got two more years [at UVa].”
Mihaljevic expects to repeat as an All-American in both the shot put and discus, he said. But he hopes to move up in each event, and “I want to score more points for this team,” he said, “because this team has been looking great this season. Whatever we do there is going to be extra on this great season so far.”
Also representing the UVa men in Eugene will be senior Ryan Satchell (triple jump), junior Kyle King (3000m steeplechase), senior Kyle Smith (javelin), senior Payton Hazzard (400m) and sophomore Henry Wynne (1500m).