From a young age, Scott Esparza played a role in field events as a master in the shot put and discus, but the first time the redshirt-freshman took up the hammer was his first year at the University of California... last year. Now, Esparza will join six other Golden Bears at this week's NCAA Championships at Drake Stadium in Des Moines, Iowa.
The Pleasanton, Calif., native was competing in the shot put and discus at Amador Valley High School when he watched his coach, Travis Nutter, compete in the hammer at the 2008 Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
"After watching him compete, I knew I had to get involved and it became my goal that in college I would throw the hammer," said Esparza. "My first year of real training with the hammer was last year, my first year at Cal."
In his first season of competition in the hammer this spring, he finished eighth at the Pac-12 Championships and, two weeks ago, set a personal record with a distance of 206-3 to place eighth at the NCAA West Preliminary Rounds in Texas to qualify for the NCAA Championships. Esparza's mark ranks fifth on Cal's all-time performer list in the event.
"Honestly, my goal at the NCAA Preliminary meet was to PR and try to make the final of the event," Esparza explained. "To qualify for the NCAA's and finish eighth overall in Texas was an unbelievable feeling. It was an opportunity that my coach and I were prepared to try to take advantage of.
"I was tapered at the right time and felt healthy," Esparza continued. "I knew that at that point in the year it was either 'do or die,' and I went for it and hit a big PR early in the competition that allowed me to build on my two remaining throws."
Several of his teammates were in Texas to celebrate with him in-person afterwards, and he will have six of his fellow Golden Bears in Des Moines to cheer him on this week.
"It's great to see the hard work pay off for my teammates," he said. "We have all had ups and downs this year and it's a privilege to be a part of this talented group."
After learning he had qualified for the NCAA's, he was quick to relay the exciting news to his family, which wasn't able to be at the meet in Austin.
"The competition had run so long that they were calling me on my cell phone as soon as I had gotten into the van back to the hotel," Esparza said. "They found out right away."
Esparza, whose father attended Cal, knew he was going to be a Golden Bear from the start.
"I've wanted to come to Cal my whole life," he said. "Ever since I could remember, I watched Cal football games with my dad. As soon as I was given the opportunity by Coach [Tony] Sandoval and Coach [Ed] Miller to come and be a part of the track & field team at Cal, it was an easy decision."
He redshirted last season and has worked closely with new assistant coach John Dagata in the hammer this year.
"Coach Degata has brought discipline and knowledge specifically about the hammer to my training, as well as doing a great job of preparing me physically to peak at the right times this year," Esparza said. "The entire coaching staff has been extremely supportive."
Since earning a spot in this week's NCAA Championships, Esparza has been living in Berkeley and working on his throwing with Degata with a morning and afternoon throwing session each day at Edwards Stadium.
"My coach and I are following the same plan we had for the preliminaries in Texas with a peak at the end of the week on Friday," Esparza explained. "I am just trying to maintain the same focus and intensity I had going into Texas with the main goal for Friday."
Esparza hopes to take what he has learned in his first year and his experience in the NCAA's to improve each of his next three seasons in Berkeley.
"I have a lot left to learn; the hammer is such a technique based sport especially at the higher levels," the redshirt freshman said."
He has set the bar high for himself in his first season of competition which leaves much promise for a bright future in Berkeley.
For now, he will focus on the NCAA Championships in Iowa this week as he becomes the first Cal student-athlete to compete in the hammer since Nutter (1996-98), yes the same Nutter who got Esparza interested in the event in the first place.