Once a hobby, discus becomes Atwell's prime pursuit Northeast star to take aim at state record


When Bill Atwell first joined Northeast's track and field team as a junior, his sole intention was to get in better shape for football season. Nothing more.

And he wasn't shy about letting everyone know.

"It was kind of a joke at first," he recalled. "I said something to the coach like, 'Why are you being so hard on us? It's not like it's a real sport.' He basically told me if I felt that way to go home. I stuck around."

Good thing he did. Otherwise, one of his coaches, Mike Cotham, still would hold the school record in the discus.

Instead, it's Atwell, now a dedicated senior, who is rewriting the record books -- both at Northeast and in the county.

His toss of 169-11 on his final attempt at Saturday's county championships moved him past Cotham and former county record-holder Angelo Wells of Annapolis. Wells set the county mark in 1971 at 156-9, while Cotham made Pasadena history five years later at 154-9.

Both records were shattered by a previously disinterested 6-foot-4, 220-pounder who never imagined he would get this involved. At least, not until he took first place in the discus at last spring's Class 2A regional meet with a toss of 126 feet.

"That's when I really got serious about it," he said. "After that, I asked my coach if I could take a discus home for the winter and practice."

Another sign of change was Atwell's willingness to remain on a weight-training program Cotham and Northeast head coach Chuck Yocum designed. It was time well-spent. His bench press increased from around 200 pounds to 310, and with the added strength and more refined technique -- he improved his leverage by carrying the discus on his shoulder instead of his hip -- came greater distances on his throws.

"His first day out [this year], we knew he was throwing over 150 feet, but we didn't tell him that," Cotham said. "We knew we had something, and we tried to hide it as long as we could to keep him going."

Atwell said, "I picked the spin up pretty quick last year, but there were a lot of big mistakes then. This year, there were just little mistakes, like keeping my arm down."

And forgetting to bring a broomstick to practice, as Cotham had asked, to wear across his back during throws as a reminder to keep his arms up and his shoulders straight.

"He made me use a 30-pound weight bar, and that gets real tiring," Atwell said.

South River's Derrick Raikes must be growing weary of having to deal with Atwell. As a nose guard on the Seahawks football team, Raikes lined up against Atwell, a center, during a game this season. On the fourth play, Atwell shot across and caught Raikes in the ankle, knocking him out of the game.

And last Saturday, Atwell inflicted more pain on Raikes, who had broken the county record on his first throw of 163-6, only to be passed by someone whose previous best was 155-5.

"I told him, 'First you take me out of the game and now you take my record,' " Raikes said.

"It was a little frustrating, but it wasn't so bad. I knew he deserved it."

Atwell, who placed second to Raikes in the shot put, had no idea that his last throw was a winner.

"I remember just as I was winding up, I was thinking, 'Well, this is it, this is the last one.' And then, when I threw it, I heard people clapping, but I wasn't paying attention. I was just trying to stay in the circle," he said.

"I didn't realize it until they pulled the tape and it wasn't long enough and they had to go get another tape. That's when I realized I had beaten it."

That's also when Atwell shed the cloak of relative anonymity he has worn for the past two years. Before, his name always seemed to follow those of Raikes and Severna Park's John Jennings in conversation -- if it came up at all.

"That's the way we wanted it," Cotham said. "We wanted to keep the pressure off him, plus keep him focused. We kept hammering the point, 'Nobody's even looking at you, Billy. You have to prove that you can do it.' We also told him that would probably be his toughest meet of the year."

By contrast, Saturday's regional meet at Friendly "should be a walk," Cotham said. And the following weekend's state meet in Westminster has intriguing possibilities.

"I think by this week, or by the states, he will own the 2A state record [about 172 feet]," Yocum said. "I don't know for sure if he'll get the overall state record of 184 feet, but he's certainly capable of 175 to 177. I really think he can throw in there without much problem at all."

More importantly, so does Atwell.

"I always knew I could throw it fairly good. I just never had before," he said. "I'll just go into the regionals with a positive attitude."

And that's no joke.

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