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Doing the heavy lifting
April 29, 2016 Frank Marquez   

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Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Gering Bulldog weights Coach Mike Loftsgard works with Max Closson on developing his footwork, while Wade Blue stops his workout to listen. The team has upped the intensity and focus on technique this season.

The young athletes – part ballet dancer and part power lifter – rest a roughly 8-foot long PVC pipe on their shoulders, twirl, dip and twist their bodies to train their feet to land and turn in certain directions – the basis or foundation for sending a 12-pound (8.8-pounds for women) metal ball or 3.5-pound (2.2 pounds) disc spiraling skyward at local track competitions.

Gering weights coach, at the opposite end physically of the athletes he teaches, Mike Loftsgard uses PVC pipe in this and other drills to teach balance and technique. With no particular name for each exercise, he calls one of them a “150.” This kind of skill comes in handy when throwers have all but an 8-foot diameter circle from which to work to produce maximum momentum and thrust. Gravity becomes the enemy. Pushing against it becomes the challenge.

In just his first year, Coach Loftsgard, has been steadily making progress with Gering’s athletes in an atmosphere of joviality and intensity. He started coaching in 1974-75, for 40-plus years, “just like yesterday,” he said. He started out in Montana, then after two years, he coached at Middle Park High School in Granby, Colorado, until this, his first season with Gering. Though, “I had been coming to the valley since 1982,” he said.

Learning about the importance of coaching in the Big Sky state, Loftsgard played in other sports, football, basketball, baseball at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but never track.
He’s fueled by his passion.

At Gering, he coaches 7 to 8 boys and 3 to 4 girls. “The team is really young,” Loftsgard said. This year, the boys team includes senior, Zach Helt, Seth DeBoer, Wade Blue, Zach Marsh, and Irving Ruiz. Afton Mitchell, Brianna Eckerberg, Gering’s best female thrower, and freshman Jenna Balthazor fill the girls’ ranks.

Balthazor, a 15-year-old freshman, is technically a rookie at being a thrower. A multisport athlete, she has played basketball since the fourth grade, and in between has mixed in volleyball, primarily as a setter. While smiling, she said the reason she went out for track was because “my dad made me.” Taking to the sport, she has been grateful she did.

So far, her best recorded distance in discus has been 91’-6”, which came at the Mitchell Invite earlier this month. In the shot put, her longest throw was 28’-6” at the same meet. Balthazor said her goal for this year is to round those numbers up to 100 feet and 30 feet, respectively.

Balthazor’s high on Coach Loftsgard because of he’s “outgoing and supportive. I like him, he’s a good coach.” She’s discovered the other sports she’s played have been complimentary. “I have built up strength with the other sports, but throwing has helped with balance and flexibility,” she said.

Agreeing with Balthazor about Loftsgard, Mitchell, a 17-year-old junior said, “I like that he knows what he’s talking about. He’s a real throwing coach. From last year, I’m throwing 10 to 15 feet farther. He pushes us a lot harder.”

Mitchell said she’s grown up with the sport after trying it for the first time in the eighth grade. “I didn’t want to run to the high school, and I ended up being good at it,” she said. “The runners and jumpers had to run a mile before each practice. I didn’t want to do that.”

She placed fourth at the Mitchell Invite (97’-6”), but her best discus toss of 98 feet was at Scottsbluff, though she’s consistently surpassed 100 feet at practice – the farthest recorded distance was a 106 feet. Developing her talent has been a journey. As a freshman, Mitchell did well, with a 99-foot average, that dropped off in her sophomore year. She admitted switching schools from Belle Fourche (bell-foosh), South Dakota, a town roughly the size of Gering, had something to do with it. This year, her goal is to break the 100-foot threshold and compete at state.

At Scottsbluff’s recent Twilight Invitational, Gering’s Blue finished third in the shot put with 48’6”, and DeBoer finished in fifth place in the discus with a 127’ 10” heave. The girls’ Eckerberg finished in second place in the shot put with 37’8.5” and Mitchell took fifth place in discus with 98’.

During practice, Loftsgard yells out: “Chest back, and don’t bend at the waist,” instructing the young giants to open their bodies, swing their legs like a soccer kick, and to point their toes as they bring that leg across their body.

In the midst of another drill, a young Daniel Merritt approached Loftsgard to hand him his track uniform. “This was his first year. He has quick feet, a hard worker. He had come a long way this season, and was probably one of the most improved in weights, but he just didn’t make the cut,” he said. Loftsgard, a smile behind a grey western-style moustache, shook Merritt’s hand, and gave him a few encouraging words. “At practice, the kids are near the end of the season, they’re free to come and go.”

The myth about throwing, Loftsgard said involves another saying:
Looks can be deceiving. “You might look at a big guy, and think he can throw really far, but without proper technique, it doesn’t matter. I knew a guy barely bigger than me – Loftsgard stands about 5-foot-9, his svelte frame in all likelihood south of 200 pounds – who because of his footwork was a two-time state champion.”

Helt, who towers over Loftsgard, is the group’s only senior. An adult now at 18, he started throwing in seventh grade because “it was the only event for fat people,” but added that he was best suited for throwing because of his size. “In the last two years, my technique has improved dramatically,” he said. “Practice is a lot more intense, we’re involved a lot more in developing our technique.”

After graduation, the 6-foot-3, 260-pound Helt plans to attend the South Dakota School of Mines to study civil engineering, and this track season will be the last time he tosses a shot put or discus.

For now, he’s currently ranked 17th in Districts, and 23rd in the shot put. Each team will take their top three or four performers for each event to the District competition. At the Mitchell meet, Helt was just two feet away from the podium, though he plans to be in the thick of it next month at the District Tourney which starts on Thursday, May 12, at Ogallala High School. Until then, the Bulldogs will compete at the Conference Meet in Scottsbluff on April 29 (today), and at the Best in the West on Monday, May 2, and finally at the Torrington Invitational on Friday, May 6.

“The best quality of this group is they are coachable,” Loftsgard said. “I’d let all of these kids come stay at my house. They know I care. I want them to do well, but I want them to be a better person, glad the parents are letting me coach them.”

Toward the end of practice as the sun started to sink lower, Loftsgard added, “They talked about their previous coaches, and not doing much, and not being asked to do much. When the rest of the track team leaves at between 5 to 5:30 p.m., we’re out here until six or longer because they want to get better.”

Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Coach Mike Loftsgard high fives freshman Jenna Balthazor after she applies perfect technique on a practice discus throw.
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