EDINBURG — It was easy for Stephen Saenz to see himself in the students eagerly waiting for their chance in the throwing circle.
Saenz was a skinny kid with big dreams when he met coach Larry Howell seven years ago at his annual camp for throwers aspiring to win championships. Howell, a longtime Rio Grande Valley track and field coach with expertise in the shot put, discus and other throws, told the Rio Grande City native that he could be one of the world’s best throwers with hard work and dedication.
Saenz proved Howell right when he represented Mexico in the Olympic Games this summer. And as he’s done for the past seven years, Howell’s prized pupil returned this week to his old coach’s throws camp — this time to tutor others on technique.
While some had stronger arms or more experience than others, like Saenz at their age, they each had a desire to learn and compete.
“These are kids who want to learn,” Saenz said in between working with the students. “They’re not kids who just have to be here. They’re all here by choice.”
About 40 high school and middle school students traveled to Cats Stadium Thursday and Friday to learn from Saenz and Howell, who has coached 10 state champions in his career.
With the support of Edinburg recreation manager Mark Lozano, Howell started the camp a decade ago to give throwers tips they could carry into the school year and build on for the season. It was at one of Howell’s first camps when he first encountered Saenz, a 14-year-old who he helped build into a state champion at Rio Grande City.
“If it wasn’t for this camp, I would have never met Coach Howell,” said Saenz, a redshirt junior at Auburn University with eyes set on an NCAA championship after finishing runner-up in the shot put last year. “He’s a reason where I am today. He saw the potential in me and believed in me.”
Now Howell is trying to coach others to where Saenz is at.
Mason Martinez, a 16-year-old junior at Cibolo Steele outside San Antonio, drove down to the camp to learn from Howell and Saenz. Martinez, who finished seventh at the state championships in the discus last year, said Saenz has “done things I want to do.”
Leigha Brown, an 18-year-old senior at Edinburg Economedes, wants to compete in college in the heptathlon, an event that includes the javelin and shot put. Brown, who specializes in the hurdles in high school, said the two-day camp showed her “all the little things to get better” at perfecting her throwing technique.
And Joe Herrera, a senior at Hanna High School in Brownsville, attended the camp for a third time.
“You need dedication at the beginning,” said Herrera, 18, whose goal is to make the state championships this year. “Once you start, you develop a love for it.”
About 80 percent of the students at the camp could get a college scholarship somewhere to throw, Howell said Friday as he watched them take turns in the throwing circle. What sets them apart from most others is hard work.
As a high school student, Saenz was a “real perfectionist” who never needed to be told to get in the weight room, Howell said. At his camp, Howell tells them that the secret to being as successful as Saenz is to make 10,000 throws a year.
“It’s 99 percent technique,” Howell said. “The rest is all desire.”
Jared Janes covers Hidalgo County government, Edinburg and legislative issues for The Monitor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (956) 683-4424.