MILTON-FREEWATER — When Pancho Saldana steps up to throw, the track meet stops to watch. Well maybe not the whole meet, his brother Jesus said, but definitely anyone within the vicinity of the javelin throwers.
That includes teammates, nearby coaches, his opponents and even competitors from other events and schools.
“Everyone just goes right there,” said Jesus, a fellow javelin man for the Mac-Hi Pioneers track and field team. “It’s just like, ‘Daaang,’”
The pudgy freshman has transformed into a sculpted athlete peaking in his final high school season. His throws have the raw strength that harkens back to cave paintings of early man spearing his dinner, but Saldana adds in the precision that can only come from intensive studying.
Just weeks later at a Union meet, a mighty Saldana throw topped that mark at 203-6, the third best throw in the state at any level this year.
Four years ago, Saldana was a hefty middle schooler who only played football. In the spring of 2008, he came out for the track team and was immediately pigeonholed.
“Once I walked on (coaches) were like, ‘You’re a thrower,’ ” Saldana remembered. “I was just like, ‘OK.’ ”
But the event in which he’s become a monster didn’t stick at first. His javelins never pierced the field the way he saw others’ doing. The javelin instead would wobble in the air, its head pulling upward before bouncing flat along the ground.
That’s when he got frustrated.
The same frustration has dogged Saldana for years in the event. The thrower plateaued in second place in the Greater Oregon League the past two seasons, missing the league title by fewer than three feet each time in each district meet.
If something went wrong mechanically in his first throw of the day or the javelin soared a bit wide and out of bounds, Saldana said the result would eat at him. He couldn’t put the poor throw out of his mind.
But that changed this year, coach John Milleson said. Saldana has won several of his meets with a cruising missile on his final attempt, including the 194-foot shot that took the Baker Invite on May 11.
“It's just been a confidence year for him,” Milleson said. “He knows he’s the best thrower and he doesn’t waste any throws.”In the offseason, Saldana watched film of his and other great javelin tossers to pick up on minor details that he could tweak in his attack. He dissected everything from footwork to arm angle.
“He’s a student of his event,” Milleson said. “He reads everything he can, trying to gain an extra foot or an extra inch each week.”
In preparation for the district meet in La Grande last week and the Class 4A State Championships in Eugene this Friday, Saldana has attempted to pass on some tips to his teammates in the event. He didn’t touch a javelin the entire week prior to his 193-foot, 3-inch toss, resting up for the big event.
It was a plan he worked on with Milton-Freewater chiropractor Dr. Ken Simpson. Saldana goes through a series of stretches before each workout to keep his shoulders and legs loose and visits Dr. Simpson’s office prior to each meet.
Instead of practicing full-bore, he had the team’s goal in mind.
“Mainly I was just helping the other javelin throwers with their technique, just trying to get a little more points for the team,” he said.
Mac-Hi placed three throwers in the top seven with Rick Sandoval and Jesus Saldana. As a team, the boys’ team took third, though.
With only one more meet in a Pioneers jersey, Saldana is aiming to leave Milton-Freewater a champion. The Mac-Hi class records have fallen each year as Saldana has moved through the school and he said he’s sure glad he didn’t let the initial struggles with the javelin deter him from sticking with it.
“Once I started picking it up, I couldn’t get away from it,” he said.
Just as the records can’t get away from him.
Contact AJ Mazzolini at email@example.com or 541-966-0839.