Two months ago, Alex McCune discovered some long-forgotten email drafts in an account he no longer uses that put in perspective his rise from the lowest of walk-ons to Mid-American Conference champion.
A 20-year-old sophomore from Pittsburgh, McCune wrote the emails to University of Akron track and field coach Dennis Mitchell, hoping to convince Mitchell of his untapped potential.
A long jumper and hurdler at North Hills Senior High School, McCune had no scholarship offers two years ago. He considered Division II Kutztown (Pa.) University, but wasn’t smitten during a visit.
McCune wanted to be a decathlete and believed he was good enough for a Division I school. But UA was virtually his last resort.
So the admitted infrequent emailer sent three to Mitchell, detailing his personal records and the numbers he believed he could reach.
Turns out McCune might not have projected high enough.
Now the 2016 Olympic Trials are the goal for McCune, who won the MAC outdoor decathlon title on May 11 with 7,411 points. He finished first in two (pole vault and javelin) of the 10 events and was no lower than eighth in the others (the 100- and 400-meter dashes, long jump, high jump, shot put, discus, 100-meter hurdles and 1,500-meter run).
That success followed his league indoor heptathlon title in February, when he compiled a school-record point total of 5,583.
McCune has already qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. As a bonus, McCune’s pole vault of 16 feet, 6¾ inches during the MAC outdoor event earned him a chance to qualify in that event at the NCAA East Preliminary Round, which begins Thursday in Greensboro, N.C.
And to think McCune had never pole vaulted until he arrived at UA. Now Mitchell, tutoring Olympic pole vault hopeful Shawn Barber, believes it will be one of McCune’s best events down the road.
At practice Monday, Mitchell used McCune’s stunning rise as an example of the kind of athletes the program needs.
“It’s crazy. He’s moved up fast,” Mitchell said. “It’s amazing to see all the things he’s done. It will be exciting to see what he does the next couple years as he really starts understanding things and grows up.
“Our dream is to have more kids like him. That will make our program great.”
McCune’s father Bill knows a personal record of 17 feet in the pole vault is more likely for Alex at the NCAA prelims than qualifying for nationals. But at the first meet Bill McCune attended in December, he said Alex didn’t clear the first bar, which was set at 11½ or 12 feet.
“He was just learning how to do it,” said Bill McCune, a business unit director for Exterran, which produces natural gas equipment. “All of a sudden it just started clicking at the end of indoor. It’s been his most consistent event since then.”
The high jump bedeviled McCune as a freshman, but his biggest challenge has been convincing himself he belongs with the elite.
“It’s still so new, it’s still so exciting,” McCune said Monday at the Stile Athletics Field House. “I think this nationals is going to better than indoors. Even though I did well at indoors it was so different, I was like a deer in headlights, like a little kid with these big guys and they were on a different level than I was. Hopefully with this one I can feel I deserve to be there and the next ones I go to I can make a name for myself.”
McCune’s confidence issue might go hand-in-hand with his perceived lack of strength.
“It’s better, but it’s still not good,” McCune said. “Hopefully I can hit my second puberty and grow some muscle.”
That doesn’t worry Mitchell, who doesn’t want his multi-sport athletes to get so big that they lose their speed.
“His size is perfect. His weight is about right. He has really good speed,” Mitchell said. “His greatest attribute is he’s very coordinated. He’s the type of kid who can pick up anything. The shot is giving him a little fit because he could be a little more powerful, but he’s improved a lot. The discus gave him some problems. Being so young, he’s going to develop the power necessary for that.”
McCune might have emailed his way onto Mitchell’s doorstep because he was overshadowed by high school teammates Juris Silenieks, Joe Kush and Zach Hebda, all distance runners. The first two now compete at Syracuse, Hebda at Navy.
“When I looked back at the emails I sent two years ago to Coach Mitchell. I did write down, ‘I’m interested in the multi events,’ ” McCune said. “I was never the fastest, but I was good at jumping, I was decent at running, I could hurdle a little. I thought, ‘That’s something that fits for me.’ I always dreamt about it with Juris, who helped me get into parts of track and field I never knew before.”
Now Mitchell believes the 2016 Olympic Trials are a legitimate goal for McCune.
“If everything went right and two people screwed up, I could sneak into the third spot and get a plane ride to Rio,” McCune said.
His tendency for self-deprecation came creeping back. It was almost as if the modest McCune could not believe in three years he might belong in Rio de Janeiro, site of the Summer Games, even if second puberty passes him by.
But when he recently reorganized the 2013 medals on his dresser, which sits next to the pile of dirty clothes in his campus apartment, McCune felt proud. He’s found his niche and it was exactly what he wanted years ago.
“I looked at it and was like, ‘Hmm, good job. You’ve got some hardware there,’ ” he said.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.