Mackenzie Leigh's progression over the last four years has been steady and impressive.
On Thursday (May 23), Leigh will be part of an Ashland University women's throwing trio which will begin the Eagles' weekend at the 2019 NCAA Division II Outdoor Championships in Kingsville, Texas. But Leigh isn't just one of 20 women's hammer throwers competing on Thursday – she is the No. 2 seed, with a legitimate shot to go out as a national champion.
"I never imagined that I would be in this position coming into school, so it's just been a fun ride," Leigh said.
In the hammer, Leigh has gone from seasonal bests of 55.97 meters/183-feet-7 as a redshirt freshman and 56.65 meters/185-feet-10 as a sophomore, to nearly clearing 60 meters as a junior (59.96 meters/196-feet-9) and, finally, blowing past 60 meters to 60.74 meters/199-feet-3 at the Ashland Alumni Open a month ago.
"I finished four centimeters short of 60 meters (as a junior), so it just felt really good to get it twice so far," said Leigh. "I love our home ring. It's where we practice, it's where we compete. So I was excited to have a fast ring to throw in."
Leigh originally came to Ashland from Buckhannon, W.Va., roughly a 4½-hour drive away.
"I went to the summer camp here before my senior year, and I had thrown shot put and discus in high school and middle school," said Leigh, "and I decided that I wanted to do the learn-to-turn for the hammer. I threw the tire that we have at summer camp, and I did hammer turns, and I was the best of them, and I got a scholarship on the spot.
"That's what brought me here."
And while Leigh started her Eagle career doing the weight, hammer, shot and discus, her ascension toward national heights in the weight and hammer didn't start until she stopped competing in the shot and discus.
"It's hard to do multiple things, and I wanted to focus on something that I could be really good at," she said.
Not only will Leigh will conclude her Eagle career at outdoor nationals, so will fellow senior hammer thrower Natalie Helenthal.
"It's been so fun to have a training partner who's at the same level as me," said Leigh. "We've been able to push each other in a positive way, and she's my best friend, so it's just been a really fun time to grow with her."
Leigh has learned under head coach Jud Logan for the last five years, and she is looking to conclude her career with a strong finish for Logan, who is battling B-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
"He never stops, so I think that's the most important thing that he's put into us," she said. "He's a really big presence, so it's been difficult not having him physically there, but what he's instilled in us since we came here has just been able to help us keep moving and still be able to achieve what our goals are."
Leigh, who has graduated with a degree in Exercise Science and is going to stay at AU and do the accelerated nursing program, is one of the favorites in the women's hammer this week, and a first D-II national title on the way out of the program isn't out of the realm of possibility.
"I never thought that this would be an opportunity I would have when I first came here," Leigh said. "It's really exciting, because I think eight or nine people could win. It's just who can bring it that day."
As for the Ashland women's team, despite having just four student-athletes at nationals, a top-10 finish isn't impossible, either.
"We all are ranked pretty high in what we're going into," Leigh noted. "If we all do really well, it could be something big for us, and that's very exciting to be able to do things in small numbers."