River’s Duke throws for a national title today

D.J. Duke can hardly believe it when he takes a step back.

The two-time state shot put champion from River High School is embarking on his final collegiate indoor track meet.

“This is a decade of throwing for me,” Duke pointed out during a phone interview earlier this week. “I’ve been throwing for a long time, but I wouldn’t trade any of it.”

And while he still has an entire outdoor season ahead, Duke doesn’t want to let this moment just go by because this final meet is the biggest.

Duke, who now throws at Ashland University, is the second-seeded thrower in the Division II NCAA National Indoor Shot Put championship and will throw this afternoon at 2 in Winston Salem, N.C., seeking his second all-American designation and the national championship.

“It’s going to take a (personal record) to win,” Duke said. “I’ve been focused on this meet and this weekend the entire season. I’ve been throwing well in practice, and I am looking forward to going out and competing.”

Duke will be the eighth thrower in the second flight. The only thrower in the competition he trails is Minnesota State Mankato’s Christopher Reed, who comes in with a mark of better than 65-feet.

“I’ve faced him at nationals before, but that’s the only time,” Duke said. “I just have to go out, throw my PR and then hope he doesn’t go big.”

As the competition unfolds, Duke has a plan of attack he hopes to employ.

“I am not going to be worried about a place, but moreso about a mark,” Duke said. “I’d like to get my first throw to be out around 18 meters (59-feet) and then build from there. I think an 18-meter throw should definitely get me in the top three of this field, but it’s going to take over 19 meters to win the national championship.”

Though the season has been a fairly dominant one for Duke. He’s continued to battle some minor injuries and lists himself at 90 percent entering today’s competition.

“It’s been some shoulder things and I injured my ankle at our conference meet, so it’s just little nagging things, but when you combine them all, it makes it tough,” Duke said. “I’ve had a good couple of weeks since conference, and I am not too worried about it affecting me too much.”

Duke earned all-American honors during the 2010 indoor season. That followed up the designation he earned in 2009 during the outdoor campaign as a true freshman.

Since then? It’s been a struggle for Duke. He’s reached the national meet basically every season, but he’s ran into problems of staying in the throwing circle consistently or landing the shot put between the sector lines.

“I have to hit the first throw to get a mark and then I can become more aggressive,” Duke offered. “The seasons, especially indoor, are long and battling minor injuries makes it tough to throw well at the end of the season.”

Duke is down nearly 20 pounds from his heaviest throwing weight, which was 305. He believes shedding the pounds has definitely helped his agility and speed.

“I am able to save a lot more throws now because I am lighter and more athletic,” Duke said.

After today’s meet, Duke will have about a week off before embarking on a relatively short outdoor season.

“We go to South Carolina for a meet and then we have about five weeks of competition before our conference meet,” Duke said.

So what – outside of outdoor season – does Duke have in store for the future?

Well, he’s planning on graduating with a degree in a degree in criminal justice and a minor in sociology.

“I may move to Newark and try finding a job because that’s where my sister lives, but if my throwing continues to improve, I may put that off and see where I can go in throwing.”

Duke has the 20 meter plateau in his mind as the minimum distance it would take for him to seriously consider further pursuing a throwing career.

“I feel like I have more in me,” Duke confessed. “I’ve got better weight room numbers than some Olympians right now. The key is going to be staying healthy.”

Staskey can be reached at sstaskey@timesleaderonline.com