Start jumping: open discussion with coach Zalewski

BLACKSBURG – Following months of preparation and training fueled by a collective desire to take the Virginia Tech track and field program to new heights, the Hokie coaching staff, led by 16-year coach Dave Cianelli, is optimistic for the new season.

The Hokies open their 2017 campaign in just three weeks, as they play host to the Virginia Tech Invitational on Jan. 13-14, at Rector Fieldhouse, in Blacksburg. Leading up to the two-day event, will interview each event coach to discuss the excitement, challenges and expectations that await this year.

Most recently, we sat down with technical director and jumps coach Paul Zalewski. Zalewski played an instrumental role in the development of alum Manuel Ziegler last season, as he qualified for the NCAA East Regional in the triple jump. He finished fifth at the ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships with a season-best mark of 15.72 meters (51 feet, 7 inches). His points were part of an overall team performance that ultimately led to an ACC team title.

Read coach Zalewski’s full transcription below or click HERE to watch the full season preview.

Talk a little about your event group. What are your goals for the upcoming season?

Coach Paul Zalewski: I’m excited about this year. Obviously winning the 2016 ACC men’s outdoor title, we are pretty excited. We think we have a pretty great team coming back, and we are looking forward to a great season. As far as my event group, I am very excited about some of the young talent we have; (freshman) Eszter Bajnok for example. She had a phenomenal high school career with a lot of great honors and accomplishments for her home country in Hungary, so we are really looking forward to her having a huge impact on the women’s side. With the recruiting class that we brought in on the women’s side, we are very excited about the direction the women’s team is going. Our men have done very well in recent years, and we are looking for our women to get back into that same mold they were in 2008 and 2009. We were contending for conference championships. We think we have a team that can do that as well, and I am excited to see (freshman) Eszter (Bajnok) be a part of that process with them.

With the start of the 2017 season right around the corner, how would you access the progress the team has made throughout the preseason? What does the team do individually in practice to perfect its techniques?

PZ: We had a great fall so far. The team has done really well. I am excited about where we are at this point. Most the kids that have come back are already ahead of where they were at this point last year, so that is exciting for me. My philosophy revolves around doing the simple things ridiculously well. I don’t get into a lot of gimmicks or things like that. I will try things here and there, but my philosophy focuses on doing the basic things really well. If you look at the training program, it might look a little bland. It might look a little repetitive, but that’s how I like to do things. I like to see that the very basic things are done as best as we possibly can.

This year’s group has a very young roster. What are you looking forward to the most this season, and who are you looking at to assume a leadership role this season?

PZ: What I like about my group is that everyone kind of shares that role. I’m looking for (junior) Mackenzie Muldoon to do some things this year. He had a great season last year, and he had a really good fall. He is way ahead of where he was at this point last year. I’m looking forward to him having a great season and taking a shot at challenging both the indoor and outdoor school record in the multi-events. (Sophomore) James Carver had a great fall as well. He is coming off a solid freshman season, so I am looking for him to step up. Again, he is another one that is well ahead of where he was at this point last year. I’m looking forward to seeing those two guys to do some things for us this year. Again, (freshman) Eszter (Bajnok) had a great fall. I’m training her at a really high level, and I am looking forward to her having a big impact on this team moving forward.

Freshman Eszter Bajnok had a great summer season, as she placed seventh in the long jump final at the 2016 IAAF U20 World Championships and was tabbed as the Hungarian Junior Female Athlete of the Year. How do you tap into a young athlete with so much potential and prepare them for what’s ahead? What is it about this incoming class?

PZ: What excites me about (freshman) Eszter (Bajnok) specifically is the fact that she is young. She is 19 years old. She has been training at a pretty high level up until this point, but there is a lot of development that happens in the course of four years. The talent that I have seen out of her and what she has been able to accomplish up until this point is unbelievable, but we also have to take what she has done and add in some of the things that we do here. That might be a little different than what she is used to. I think the sky is the limit for her. There is a lot of upside still. There is a lot of room for improvement, technically and physically. She is getting stronger. She is getting faster. We are cleaning some things up in her technique that needed to be cleaned up. We are utilizing all the things that we bring to the table as a program combined with what she has already done. One of the things I like to do is have more consultations with some of our athletes that have been very successful at a high level because obviously something has been going right. Let’s tap into that. Let’s use that, and then let’s bring in some of the things that we do well here to try and create the best situation that we can for her.

Even though track and field is very much a team sport at the collegiate level, it is an individual sport as well. With such a small event group, what is the comradery like with this squad? How does everyone come together as a team?

PZ: My group is phenomenal. I really couldn’t ask for a better group of kids. The group is very small. I only have seven at this point, which is kind of how I want it. I don’t want a big, gigantic group. I like to spend a little bit more time individually with each kid, but the comradery has been great. They get a long really well. A bunch of them live together off campus, but seeing them interact with each other and pump each other up is great. They pat each other on the back. They put an arm around each other if they have to, whether they had a bad day or not. Whatever the case might be, they get along and support each other. They are there for each other. For me, that is an awesome thing to see. It is great to see them take that role on themselves and be that family for each other in this kind of environment.

Tech graduate Manuel Ziegler qualified for the 2016 NCAA East Regional, but just missed qualifying for the 2016 NCAA Championships. Moving forward, how does the team build off its performances year-in and year-out? Everyone has their own motivational techniques, but how do you drive your squad to do better as a whole?

PZ: For the men, the motivation is there. There is not much that we have to do as coaches to motivate these guys to do better. They came off a conference championship last season and an eighth-place finish at the national championship. It was one of the best years we ever had as a program, so what more can you tell them? They are already highly motivated, and they are ready to get going. We lost a few key pieces to that championship team, but we also have a lot of great pieces coming in. We have a lot of great, young freshmen, so we think we have just as much a chance this year to do as well or better than we did last season. The motivation on the men’s side is not hard in those kind of situations. We brought in a solid recruiting class on the women’s side. I talk about (freshman) Eszter (Bajnok) a lot, but add in (freshman) Emma Thor and (freshman) Kajsa Wennberg in the throws area. Those are two phenomenal young hammer throwers. Also add in (freshman) Arlicia Bush in sprints and (freshman) Amanda Thomas, (freshman) Laurie Barton and (freshman) Sarah Edwards in the middle distances. We brought in a phenomenal women’s recruiting class this year, and we are really excited to see that young group develop. That group is pretty excited to build that foundation moving forward. They know they have a chance. They know they have an opportunity to do something that hasn’t been done here in quite a few years on the women’s side. They are pretty amped up about that. They are pretty excited for the season to come. As long as we can keep everybody healthy and moving in the right direction, I think it is going to be a pretty special year for us.

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