When Josh Freeman returned home from Southern Illinois University for the holidays, his appearance caught the eye of friends and family members.
“I had several people tell me I looked thinner,” said Freeman, a Cary-Grove graduate.
Thanks to an intense weight training regimen in preparation for SIU’s track and field season, Freeman actually added 20 pounds during his first semester on the Carbondale campus.
“I put on weight in the right places,” the 317-pound freshman shot putter said.
The added weight and strength have translated into an impressive start to his college career.
Last weekend at Kentucky’s Rod McCravy Invitational, Freeman won the shot put with a personal-best 60 feet, 1¼ inches, the fifth-best throw in school history and a toss that ranks among the nation’s top 20 efforts this season.
“It’s all come together,” Freeman said. “It’s solely because of the training I’ve done here.”
When SIU throws coach John Smith initially worked with Freeman, there was plenty of room for growth.
“We had to get him up to strength first,” Smith said.”Some of our girls were beating him on a lot of the lifts.”
“That was the truth,” Freeman said with a laugh. “Some of these girls down here are really strong.”
In a span of three months, Freeman saw massive dividends. His maximum bench press has gone from 295 pounds to 405. He now squats more than 500 pounds.
“It just took time,” Freeman said. “As much as I was sore all the time, I really enjoyed it. I never thought I’d get that strong that fast.”
Pushing his physical limits allowed Freeman to learn about what his body could handle.
“I know my body so much better than I ever did,” I know how my body reacts to certain things.”
For example, Freeman knows he’ll be the most sore two days after a heavy weightlifting session.
“So now, those are the days I focus on technique,” he said. “I’ve wanted to throw far [on those days], but my body wouldn’t let me.”
Freeman credits Smith with overseeing his progress.
As a college athlete at SIU, Smith won eight Missouri Valley Conference titles in the shot put, hammer and discus. As a coach, Smith has tutored 12 all-Americans.
“We both have the same passion,” Freeman said. “You can kind of joke around with him in practice and he’ll joke with you. But when we’re at a meet and it’s time to throw, it’s time to be serious. That’s the same way I am. If you scratch a throw or make a mistake, he’ll give you an earful.”
After finishing second in the shot put at the Saluki Open on Jan. 12 with a toss of 56-5¾, Freeman won the event a week later at the Illini Classic in Champaign with an effort of 59-8¼.
“It’s a process, and now he’s starting to see some progress,” Smith said. “Josh is a great competitor.”
At Kentucky, Freeman led for four rounds before being passed by Kentucky sophomore Brad Szypka’s throw of 59-5½.
“On my last throw, I either hit a [personal record] and win the meet or I take second after leading the whole time,” Freeman said. “I was really happy with the way I went about it. I’ve matured so much.”
Freeman’s top throw this season ranks 17th nationally. The top 16 throwers advance to the indoor nationals next month in Fayetteville, Ark.
“I know I can get off a big throw,” said Freeman, whose best toss is a foot from being among the top 12. “I don’t want to go to nationals and just be that freshman. I want to try to get on that podium and be an All-American. And next year, I want to go and compete [for a title].”
“I told him when we get to 60 (feet),” Smith said, “then we’ll talk about 62.”
Freeman’s competitive streak also has him thinking ahead to international competition, perhaps as soon as the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said. “My progression has been a big confidence booster.”
Top dog in MAC: Northern Illinois sophomore Nelle Youel was named the Mid-American Conference Women’s Tennis Player of the Week on Wednesday after leading the Huskies to a 3-0 start last weekend in their spring debut.
Youel, a Crystal Lake Central grad, is the first NIU women’s tennis player to win the award since 2009.
In three dual matches, Youel went 3-0 at No. 1 singles and was also perfect at No. 1 doubles. She lost only two games in singles and four games in doubles in victories against Bradley, Valparaiso and Western Illinois.
Stritch contributor: Crystal Lake South grad Caitlin Mize is averaging a career-best 4.5 rebounds a game this season as the starting center for NAIA Cardinal Stritch University.
Mize, who has started a career-high 24 games this season, has helped the Milwaukee school to a 20-5 record. The team is 14-4 in the Chicago Collegiate Athletic Conference standings for NAIA Division II teams, just one-half game behind three teams with 14-3 records.
While playing a career-high 24.9 minutes a game this season, Mize has contributed 3.8 points a game and ranks third on the team in assists (57) and blocked shots (eight).
• Barry Bottino writes a weekly column and a blog about local college athletes for the Northwest Herald. Write to him at BarryOnCampus@hotmail.com, check out his On Campus blog at McHenryCountySports.com and follow him @BarryOnCampus on Twitter.