Alexis Clark kept her eye on the rest of the state and the nation for motivation. Jaekob Vollbrecht didn’t have to look beyond his own school.
The Free Lance-Star’s 2018 outdoor track athletes of the year dominated the throwing events and added to their impressive high school resumes. Each won a state title in the shot put, and James Monroe’s Clark doubled up by winning the Class 3 girls discus title, while Courtland’s Vollbrecht was a close second in the Class 4 boys event.
But they took differing paths to get there.
Clark, who won the first of her nine career state titles as a freshman in 2015, went unbeaten against state competition this season. Her top shot put of the season (48 feet, 5 inches) at one time was more than 10 feet better than any other area girl and at one time was best in the nation.
Among state rivals, only Ebonie Whitted of Virginia Beach’s Grassfield High (a Class 6 school with a much larger enrollment) has eclipsed it (49–10 at the New Balance Nationals earlier this month). Clark beat Whitted head to head in May’s Dogwood Track Classic in Charlottesville.
Rarely challenged in person, Clark scanned the high school track website milestat.com to see how her competition was doing and for incentive to keep improving.
“To keep myself motivated, I like to think people are throwing farther than me,” she said. “My goal is to be the best. ... That makes me work harder.”
A rare silver medal in the discus at the 2017 state meet also propelled Clark. After winning the 2015 and ‘16 titles, she finished behind Patrick County’s Megan Carico last season.
“That was a big upset in the discus,” Clark said. “I got really mad and told myself I would come back and beat her.”
She did just that, unleashing a throw of 131–9 in a near-monsoon in Harrisbonburg to edge Carico by 2 inches.
Lest you think Clark is in this entirely for herself, know that she also ran a leg on JM’s 400-meter relay team this spring and played softball as well. She also moonlighted as a basketball player during the indoor season and started in goal last fall for JM’s state field hockey champions.
Tammy Clark, who has coached her daughter since age 8, believes multi-tasking is good for Alexis.
“It most definitely helps her,” Tammy Clark said. “ ... I didn’t want her to burn out, so I was OK with her playing softball, because you can overthrow yourself. I was struggling as a coach, because I thought I needed her at practice. But she got her work done.”
Vollbrecht is also a multi-sport athlete, playing on the offensive and defensive lines for Courtland’s football team for four years. Mark McDougal, Courtland’s weights coach, insists that diversity helped his star pupil’s coordination, although Vollbrecht thinks he might have cost himself a bit of distance on his throws by declining to train year-round.
It didn’t seem to hurt. Vollbrecht set a school record with his 175–4 discus heave this spring and challenged the shot put mark of 62–9 set by Ben Beatty (who now competes for Duke), finishing with a best effort of 62–1.
Both distances were best in the area, but he had plenty of competition in the Courtland hallways. Fellow senior Joel Whitmore finished second behind Vollbrecht in both events at the Region 4B meet, and six Cougars surpassed 40 feet in the shot—including Vollbrecht’s younger brother, Jackson, a freshman.
“He’s the next me, but better,” Vollbrecht quipped.
Jackson still has a ways to go, though, to match his big brother. Jaekob Vollbrecht blossomed during his junior season, sweeping the Class 4 state outdoor shot and discus titles. Competing in the same sloppy conditions as Clark, he added his fifth career crown in the shot this year and finished a mere 5 inches behind Blacksburg’s Solomon Ghosh (171–3) in the discus—although his final attempt would have beaten Ghosh had he not fouled.
“He accomplished pretty much everything he wanted to, except winning a state discus title,” McDougal said.
Vollbrecht credits McDougal with improving his technique, especially his spin. But McDougal said Vollbrecht was self-motivated.
“It was hard work and maturity,” McDougal said. “He’s the typical kind of athlete who blossoms around 16 or 17. He really took off when he got his technique down. He would take home the implements and throw on the weekend.”
Said Vollbrecht: “[McDougal] watches every single thing. If I have a question, he’s there to answer it. ... He taught me to go slow in the back and fast in the middle.”
Vollbrecht plans to ride that momentum to Virginia Commonwealth University. Clark said she will spend a year competing at NAIA Pikeville (Ky.) to improve her academic standing before transferring to an NCAA Division I school as a sophomore. Tammy Clark said South Carolina, Texas Tech and Ohio State have shown particular interest.
[Jaekob Vollbrecht] accomplished pretty much everything he wanted to, except winning a state discus title. —MARK McDOUGAL