FARGO — The best NCAA Division I college track and field programs usually go by the names of Texas A&M, Florida, Oregon or Georgia. They’ve won the last 10 outdoor championships.
It doesn’t mean they have exclusive ownership rights to the best individuals out there. They can come from anywhere and this year, a new school has entered that pool with a legitimate threat to win an outdoor title.
North Dakota State.
Football put the Bison on the Division I FCS map. Men’s basketball has been a part of NCAA tournament brackets four times in the last 10 years. Softball and wrestling annually have been flirting with top 25 polls.
With his NCAA Indoor national title in the shot put, Bison senior Payton Otterdahl has the NDSU brand on track websites and publications across the country.
“The beauty of track and field is you can be great wherever you’re at,” said nationally-renowned throwing coach Mike Maynard. “It’s kind of like Santa Clara beating Arizona in March Madness. When a 16 seed beats a 1, it doesn’t mean the 16 seed wasn’t good, it means people were not aware of them because they’re from a smaller market. At some point, the talent will rise and show itself. That’s what Payton has done.”
Maynard coached some of the best at UCLA, Boise State and Arizona. He’s coached five Olympians and five USA Track & Field champions.
Otterdahl may have come out of nowhere in the eyes of most of the country. He placed fifth as a sophomore in the shot put at the Summit League Championships. After redshirting the two years ago, he at one time owned the top throw in the country before finishing 10th in the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
This year has been out of sight. He won the NCAA Outdoor with a throw of 71 feet, 2 ¾ inches, which won the event by over two feet. He also won the weight throw, only the second thrower in NCAA history to sweep both events.
He’s the collegiate record holder in the shot and has the fifth-best weight throw on record.
“For me, he didn’t come out of nowhere, I’ve been watching him,” Maynard said. “He’s a uber-talented young man who has been chipping away each year. But the chances are it surprised a lot of people because they wouldn’t expect someone of his caliber to come out of a small school.”
In the vernacular of Division I college athletics, NDSU is a small school that is considered mid-major in nature. The big names in track and field usually reside in one of the five power conferences: Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, Atlantic Coast or Big 12.
Mid-major athletes winning national titles happens from time to time. Last year, Chris Nilsen from the University of South Dakota won the pole vault and Luke Vaughn from the University of Memphis won the discus.
“You don’t need a giant powerhouse,” said Jeff Hollobaugh, associate editor for Track & Field News. “You need a devoted athlete and a devoted coach.”
Last week, Track & Field News released its predictions for the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships set for June 5-8 in Austin, Texas. Otterdahl was instilled as the favorite in the shot put and the discus, a leader in two events that doesn’t happen all that often.
“It’s more common on the women’s side,” Hollobaugh said. “At the guy’s level, it’s so competitive and is more rare. It’s happened, there are precedents, but it’s not like every year the same guy wins both events.”
How Otterdahl has ascended to an elite level in two years is a direct result of his throws coach. Both Hollobaugh and Maynard said Justin St. Clair has a national reputation for excellence in his field.
“He has a factory going,” Hollobaugh said. “He’s doing great work with a lot of different skill sets. Most observers would say he’s definitely among the top three, four coaches in America.”
Yet, St. Clair has remained in Fargo where NDSU is one of the last schools in the country to get outside to practice and compete in the spring. He’s in his eighth year with the Bison, and who knows how many job offers he’s rejected over the years.
“The next thing to happen is everybody in the world is going to try scavenge talent from NDSU,” Maynard said. “I know Justin loves the area, his wife is from there and it wouldn’t be a shock for somebody to say how is this happening and disassemble what (head coach Don Larson) so lovingly put together.”
Specifically, what St. Clair has put together when it comes to Otterdahl’s physical ability is combine is quickness and strength with technique. The old adage that the biggest guy can throw the farthest is long gone, replaced by strong athletes who have some size to them.
Otterdahl, from Rosemount, Minn., is 6-foot-4 and 285 pounds. The buzz phrase with great throwers is they possess “fast-twitch muscles.” Maynard said research has shown the two closest-related events in track and field from a physiological standpoint are the shot put and the 100 meters.
He's the track and field equivalent to what former Bison offensive linemen Billy Turner and Joe Haeg are to their craft. Both are in the 6-5 to 6-6 range and north of 300 pounds. And fast.
“It’s the biggest, strongest and fastest ones who excel,” he said.
Said Hollobaugh: “Everyone says you have to be big and strong and that’s a given, but a lot of big guys can’t throw worth a darn. You have to have speed, obviously he has that. All the best ones can move really quick.”
Add to that a hunger to improve and Maynard said there’s no question Otterdahl has Olympic potential.
“Not only to make the Olympic team but having a shot at the finals and a shot for vying for a medal,” he said. “There’s no reason if he continues doing the correct things that he couldn’t be there.”