BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
DES MOINES – Fort Madison senior Leigh Johnson’s wearing a medal around the grounds at Drake Stadium with a big smile on her face.
With a 37′ throw, which bested her previous best by almost six inches, Johnson said the happiness kicked in when she qualified for the final round with the 8th best throw at state.
She had toyed around with 34 and 35 foot throws during warmups and threw a 34′-4″ toss in the first round of the first flight. But she settled in with her second of three throws for a 37 flat, the longest throw of the day in that flight. That throw was long enough to bump four girls from the second top flight of the event and land Johnson in the finals.
Johnson scratched on the first throw landing over the board and then had two throws of nearly 35 feet on the second and third rounds. Throwers get to take their top throw of the day for the final distance.
Johnson, a stalwart on the Fort Madison High School volleyball team in a setter position, said she exceeded her expectations on the season.
“I didn’t expect to get into the finals,” she said. “I was just overjoyed at that point. For volleyball I really wanted to get my All-State picture up (in the high school MPR room). I made academic all-state, but now I’m just happy I’m going to get my picture up.”
Throwing coach Andrew Troxel said Johnson had the drive to throw the medaling distance the whole season.
“Leigh’s had this potential in her from the very beginning of the season,” he said. “I think we just set the short-term goals and they fell into place one after another and then she just capitalized on everything, the confidence came, and before you know it, she just relaxed and began to unleash with her throws. I’m just so freaking proud of her.”
Head coach Brian Mendez said Johnson texted him at the beginning of the season and wanted to come back out and throw.
“It was a no-brainer,” Mendez said. “All the credit goes to Troxel and Leigh. They would go over to the throwing field and work techniques and they worked hard. I know I could speak here on (Boys Head Coach Erin) Benner’s behalf but we just can’t thank him enough. It’s always got to be about fun and he has fun with them and works from the heart.”
Johnson got wrapped up in a slough of photos after the awards presentation with family, coaches, friends, and fellow students.
“How cool is that,” Mendez observed. “You can have all these athletes that come out as 7th or 8th graders. But she came out as a freshman, it didn’t work out and she left, but then came back – and that’s all that mattered.”
Johnson credited Troxel for helping get her the medal.
“He’s definitely the main reason I got here. I came in never having thrown the shot before. He turned me around and made me look like a seasoned veteran,” she said.
Mt. Pleasant’s Lexie Magnani took second in the shot with a throw of 39′-11.75″. Mt. Vernon’s Jade Hard won the event with a throw of 41′-11″.
Central Lee junior Emily Fuller failed to make it out of the first heat despite one of her best throws of the year.
Fuller had a first round throw of nearly 110 feet in her first run at the state meet, which would have put her in the top 12 in flighted throws, but stepped off the pad too quickly and fouled. Her next two throws went right of the marks and she failed to score in the meet.
But she said she learned a lot from the experience and fully intends to return next year. She just missed qualifying as a sophomore last year.
“This year my goals going into the season were to beat the school record, I got one of those goals, but I missed the school record by two feet at districts. I was hoping to get it here, but the cards didn’t fall into place.”
Fuller said the foul was probably due to being her first trip to state.
“I didn’t wait for it to hit the ground and I stepped off, and I’ve never done that before. It just slipped my mind,” she said. “It’s been amazing leading up to this week. I’ve had lots of excitement leading up to this week and it’s been really fun.”