O’Connell wins boys discuss at regionals

In this file photo from 2019, then-sophomore Darius O’Connell throws in the shot put during the 2019 regional finals at Free State High School. O’Connell won the state title later that season and will defend it at Thursday’s state meet in Wichita.

When Darius O’Connell steps into the shot put ring, his mother, Robyn, assumes her post alongside the white chalk lines that border the throwing grounds.

As O’Connell brings the ball to his chin, Robyn aims her iPhone camera at him and presses play. Where the ball lands is not of Robyn’s concern. Her only goal is to capture her son’s movements.

O’Connell will watch the clip later and, most likely, find something wrong with it.

He slouched on the follow through, or pushed off his plant leg incorrectly or, as was the case at last weekend’s regional meet, he failed to generate enough arm speed.

O’Connell threw 57 feet, 9 inches to win the title by nearly eight feet. And though he was more than three feet off his personal-best distance (61 feet, 3 inches), he enters Thursday’s Class 6A state meet, where he is the defending shot put champion, with the second-best regional distance in the state.

But when O’Connell reviewed the film his mother captured, he described his performance in one brusque, objective word: “Sluggish.”

“I wouldn’t say it was good,” O’Connell said Tuesday. “I was much slower than normal. There were multiple things wrong with it.”

That assessment, in Manhattan head coach Kory Cool’s estimation, is the foundation upon which O’Connell’s state championship pedigree was built. O’Connell knew nothing about throwing shot put when he started, but now he’s the master of his own movements.

No matter how far he throws, O’Connell refuses to assign his form a perfect score on the rewatch.

“Usually not,” O’Connell said. “I’ve always had really high expectations of myself. I always try to find things I can get better at.”

O’Connell first tried track in middle school because he wanted to see his friends more; he specialized in shot put because, as he put it, “I didn’t have to run.”

The event suited him, to be sure. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound senior always has been among the biggest kids in his class. But when O’Connell first started, he wasn’t even strong enough to throw correctly.

An ideal shot-put follow through, he said, resembles that of a jump-shooter, only stiffer and angled right. But early in his career, O’Connell found that he couldn’t extend his elbow far enough to complete it. His right arm wore out too quickly during practice.

His only solutions laid in Manhattan High’s weight room, where O’Connell spent many hours prepping his body for three different sports: football, wrestling and track. He started by lifting “a couple times” per week after school as a freshman. Then, thanks to the weightlifting class he took as a sophomore, he started lifting every day.

O’Connell quickly saw results. After spending his freshman season on the junior varsity track team, he finished third at his first varsity meet. He won his next one and out-threw his personal-best distance by six feet.

By midseason, he no longer struggled with his follow through. And by the end, he won the state title.

The secret behind his improvement: milk, two scoops of chocolate-flavored protein and sore biceps.

“I’ve kind of gotten used to that,” O’Connell said. “I usually think if my muscles are sore after a workout, they’ll be stronger later.”

His credo remains true this week, the moment O’Connell and his fellow track athletes have been building toward for two years. After losing last season because of the coronavirus, O’Connell has maximized his senior year. He hasn’t lost a shot put meet all season, and he broke Manhattan’s 44-year-old record in late April.

To this point, all of O’Connell’s accolades have come without employing a glide technique. And he hasn’t performed a warm-up throw since he broke the record without one last month. Lenhart said he’s used the “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” approach with O’Connell.

“He’s one of those exceptional kids that you don’t see all the time,” Lenhart said the day after O’Connell broke the school record. “If he’s more comfortable throwing from a standing position, I’m going to let him.”

With one meet remaining, O’Connell has just one goal left to accomplish: defend his title. His best distance still is the best in Kansas, but nothing is guaranteed at the state meet.

Nothing, that is, except Darius finding fault with his performance as he reviews his mother’s footage.

“I always think I can do better,” O’Connell said. “I’m usually happy if I do well in something, but I always think I could have done better if I put more time in or if I had worked more.”