The weighted ball thuds to the ground kicking up a cloud of dust with it.
On one side of a dry, weed-filled empty lot on the east side of Elk Grove’s city limits the boy who tossed this contraption, resembling a ball-and-chain device used years ago in the prison systems, steps out the steel-line ring and another big boy steps in ready to take his turn to do the same thing.
The next boy begins his preparation for his toss.
He has his back to the open field, grabs the handle in one hand and lifts it above his head. A steel cable stretches out beneath the handle and on the other end, about 20 inches or so from the handle, is a round steel ball. He grunts a bit out loud as he swings the ball to his left, then directs its momentum to make a full circle around him.
|(from left) Jacob Cornelio, Steven Tofanelli, Coach Michael Curry, Cody Holt
As he begins to twirl the handle faster and faster around him the cable is fully stretched and on the end, the ball gains altitude. His arms are now fully stretched out to his side with both hands on the handle.
He then pivots on the left foot, making a full 360-degree spin himself and at just the right time, flings the contraption well into the air. The steel ball ascends, peaking high in the air above the empty lot, the cable and handle wiggling in tow. For a while it looks like a golf ball in mid-air on a pitch shot onto a green.
The thrower stops with his toes buried into the steel-ringed launchpad from where he made the toss. He gazes after the ball; and in what seems like a good five seconds later, it crashes to the ground with a resounding thud.
Coach Michael Curry says, “Nice throw. That felt good, didn’t it?”
Steven Tofanelli just grinned.
“He threw that more than 180 feet,” Curry remarked eye-balling the landing spot of the ball and comparing that to a series of faded orange cones placed about the lot.
Not too far away, under a masking of chain link fence, is a water well for the homes that surround this empty lot.
“He’s pelted that fence a few times,” Curry said. “That’s 200 feet away. One day next year Steven will out-throw the field.”
Curry points to a wooden fence on the far end of the throwing field.
“That fence is 220 feet away. He’ll be making that next year. We’ll have to get a bigger field.”
This particular morning Curry was directing Tofanelli, along with Cody Holt and Jacob Cornelio, in a practice session of hammer throwing. It’s a track-and-field event that is not sanctioned by the CIF in California. In fact, not too many high schools anywhere have hammer throwing but it is a field event at the collegiate level.
“What I like about the hammer is that your last record is your last throw,” Cornelio said.
Curry, who has coached discus and shot put throwers at Elk Grove High School in the past, saw the need – and the scholarship opportunities for students – to give high schoolers some experience and coaching in the hammer throw.
So, Curry gathered a few “hammers” and following the CIF Track and Field season began to invite some of the discus throwers, generally the biggest and burliest members of the track team, to join him in some hammer throws.
Most of them loved the experience and that led Curry six years ago to form Golden State Throwers, a club for high school athletes who want to throw the hammer or the discus.
“Though most of my kids do throw the discus, they have to throw the hammer to be in my club,” Curry said.
Just about every day Curry is working with a group of throwers that come to him from all around Sacramento. He’s a bit of a perfectionist as seen by the small remarks he makes on just about every throw one of his students make.
“You’re pulling away, dude,” Curry says to Holt following a short toss. “What are you going to do?”
Not too far away is Holt’s father, Craig, a long-time junior varsity football assistant coach at Elk Grove.
“It was (Cody’s) idea to do this,” the elder Holt said. “His freshman year he asked if he could go to the Sunday (throwing) practices. He went three weeks in a row. There were no spots in (the Golden State Throwers), then someone didn’t make grades, that’s when (Curry) brought him on the team.”
Curry is proud of the fact that none of his throwers have a grade point less than 3.0, a requirement to be a part of the club.
“They actually sign a contract to carry at least a 3.0 GPA, to keep their lives clean, in other words, no alcohol, marijuana, things like that,” Curry explained. “They also have to keep clean on social media. They sign a whole contract committing them to that.”
He makes know bones about it – Curry sees hammer throwing as a unique way for student/athletes to gain a college scholarship. Not too many high school throwers toss the hammer. Discus and shot are the devices thrown in all the prep meets.
So if someone shows good technique- and good distance – in a hammer throw, it just might earn them a track scholarship.
“You would have to go to Rhode Island or Georgia or somewhere back east to find an experienced hammer thrower to come into college,” Curry said. “That’s why we focus on the hammer.”
There are several track and field meets each summer in California where there is hammer throwing competition. Curry signs up his club members to compete in these events and this summer they’ve had great success.
Eleven of them have qualified in the hammer throw for the USATF 2014 National Junior Olympics, July 22-27, in Houston, Tex.
The qualifiers include Tofanelli, Holt, Cornelio and Trevor Reinwald, all who attend Elk Grove. Tofanelli is ranked in the top three nationally in the hammer thanks to a toss of 189 feet, nine inches at the Golden West Meet earlier this summer.
But, the one Golden State Thrower Curry thinks has a great chance of winning the girls hammer throw at the National meet is Emelda Malm-Anan.
“She’s rated number one going to the Nationals,” Curry said. “She won the Regional championships to qualify her for both the hammer and the discus.”
Malm-Anan will be a senior at Monterey Trail High School. Her best toss of the hammer this summer has been 156 feet.
“If I stuck her in a college meet, she’d beat most of them,” Curry claimed. “She’s tossed 170 feet several times in practice.”
In the discus she’s ranked fifth nationally.
Holt’s younger sister, Madison, will also go to the Nationals and compete in the age 15-16 group.
Holt, Reinwald and Cornelio are also members of the offensive line for the Thundering Herd football squad. That group is known as the “Hammerheads,” a group they are all proud to be a part of.
In between football and hammer throwing this summer Cornelio is cleaning utensils and floors at Above and Beyond Bakery in Elk Grove.
“It’s been a really good job for me,” Cornelio said. “My boss is kind of like my second father. He’s been really good to me.”
He’s trying to save money so he can pay his way to Houston.
“I’m looking forward to going there to participate, to show off what I can do to the colleges that will be there,” Cornelio said.
He’s also begun saving money for college where he’d like to major in psychology.