Matt Seeland has trained his share of promising athletes over the years, with numerous qualifiers and several medalists for the PIAA track and field championships.
But the State College throwing coach has been seeing one of his young, promising field athletes get distracted and drop off in her training.
It just happens to be his daughter, Esther — thanks to the track.
The Lady Little Lion junior is a pretty good thrower in the shot put and discus. But, as it turns out, she’s even better at running the 400 and 800 meters.
“Her first 800, it was clear this was her calling,” said Rebecca Donaghue, the middle- and long-distance coach and head cross country coach.
Despite being a runner for only about six months, Esther Seeland will head into the District 6 Class 3A Championships as the top seed in the 800 and likely will have legs on the 1,600 and 3,200 relay teams. The meet starts at 3:30 p.m. Thursday at Altoona’s Mansion Park with the winners — and others hitting the preset qualifying standards — earning bids to the PIAA championships.
To get that state meet bid, it means Esther will have to break away from the “family business” of the field events.
In addition to her father mentoring the throwers, her older brother Mark and sister Hannah were both throwers. Brother Eli also broke away from the group, playing lacrosse.
Esther has been a varsity thrower since her freshman season, but there has always been a little endurance running in her life. She has been a starting center-back for the girls’ soccer team the last two seasons, so running wasn’t a shock to the system.
Her mother had been encouraging her to give running a try — “It was because I had run like one 400 when I was in fourth grade,” Esther joked — but she finally gave it a shot last fall. One day after a weight-lifting session, Matt timed Esther for a lap around the track.
The 68-second effort was good — for any high school girl, let alone someone who had just finished a long session with the weights. Matt told Donaghue about the time, and they hatched a plan to turn her into a runner.
They had to build a runner’s base so, for last winter’s indoor season, she just ran 400-meter races, then both 400s and 800s were mixed in during this outdoor season along with relays. The first time she ran in the 4x800? At the Penn Relays in late April in front of thousands of fans and other athletes.
“It was really crazy because I’ve never run it before,” Esther said, noting her biggest concern was dropping the baton. “You’ve got that extra adrenaline and in that huge stadium — it was a little bit nerve-wracking, but once you get out there you just go run.”
Her 2-minute, 18.28-second split time for her leg was the fastest of the four runners that included Catherine Curtin, Sophie Bollinger and Elly Haushalter. They finished 10th in the large school division in 9:31.06.
Seeland still throws and will compete in the discus Thursday, and she has an affinity for both. The daughter of a math-teaching dad and science-teaching mom, she is strong in both areas and approaches all of her events analytically.
“Every single throw is different, and you’re never going to hit one perfect,” Esther said. “You’re just trying to minimize your errors. ... Every time you get out of the circle, there’s always something you can fix.”
That kind of approach is appreciated by Donaghue, who doesn’t have to dog her novice runner about important details like stretching, lifting and ice baths.
“Esther leaves no stone unturned,” Donaghue said. “She has been incredible to coach because she does all the little things.”
Esther’s personal bests include 104 feet, 5 inches in the discus and 33-9 in the shot put, plus 58.4 in the 400 and 2:17.49 in the 800, likely making her the favorite in the latter Thursday.
The transition is far from over, either. She is starting to work on the long jump, and the long-term plan is to turn her into a multi-sport athlete in college like the heptathlon.
She is enjoying both worlds, from the camaraderie of the small group of throwers to the independence and dedication of running, and she has made it all work.
“When you run, it’s physically exhausting,” Seeland said. “It’s cool to push your body to that limit and see what it feels like. It’s very satisfying when you’re done.”