KSU standouts’ record-breaking success bolsters track and field program

Matthias Tayala

Richard Mulhall

Records are meant to be broken, and for a pair of Kent State track and field throwers, no record is untouchable this season— not even their own.

Senior Matthias Tayala and junior Danniel Thomas have been breaking school records left and right the past couple of seasons, making names for themselves and bolstering Kent State as one of the top throwing schools in Division I college athletics.

Tayala, the NCAA Division I National Champion in the hammer throw, holds the school record in the indoor 35-pound weight throw (75’ 1.75”; 2015) and the outdoor hammer throw (241’-04.00”; 2014); and Thomas, the NCAA National Runner-up at last year’s National Championships, owns the first best mark in school history in the indoor shot put (58’-1.25”; 2015), outdoor shot put (55’-02.25”; 2014) and outdoor discus (194’-10.00”; 2014).

While racking up school records in their respective events this past indoor season, Tayala and Thomas each earned a MAC Championship in the hammer throw and shot put, respectively.

“Matthias Tayala and Danniel Thomas, along with their throwing coach Nathan Fanger, have carried on an already very strong tradition in throwing here at Kent State; and I think we’ve taken it to potentially another level with Matthias being now a two-time All-American in the indoors and the weight throw and an NCAA champion in the hammer and a multiple-time conference champion, and now Danniel Thomas being both an indoor and outdoor All-American and national runner-up — I just think it puts the dot on the I and crosses the T in continuing the success of the already rich tradition we had,” coach Bill Lawson said.

Tayala and Thomas’ efforts have not gone unseen. Teams have now taken notice of the Kent State throwing team’s recent accolades, especially on the national stage. By excelling in throwing and making their marks at Kent State, Tayala and Thomas have put the program on the map and carried on the school’s rich history of success.

“In order to first look at where we are now, we have to look at where we came from,” Lawson said. “For a half a century or more, Kent State has had really strong throwing program. It’s an area Kent State has accelerated in, has been successful in that area for many years through many different coaching staffs.”

One can’t help but draw parallels between Tayala’s and Thomas’ paths to becoming Kent State’s top throwing tandem. Everything from top-notch high school upbringings to breaking records on a weekly basis, Tayala and Thomas’ career paths have crossed at Kent State and taken a turn for the best these past two years.

Tayala’s time

A few weeks ago, Tayala sat in his apartment battling a cold just days before the NCAA Track and Field Indoor Championships in Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

“I ran to the drug mart to buy some of those emergency packets,” Tayala said with that sickness-sounding voice.

In the next few days, Tayala traveled to Central Michigan and placed sixth in the country in the hammer throw despite his illness.

And it wasn’t just Tylenol Cold & Flu that helped Tayala do so well while feeling so bad. He’s just that good.

Last year, Tayala was forced to take a lot of time off of competition due to injury, but during this year’s indoor season, Tayala returned feeling better than ever.

“It’s a great feeling always, to be healthy and compete well when I need to,” Tayala said.

Breaking the hammer throw school record again was certainly a goal Tayala set for himself this season, especially considering he was injured the majority of last indoor season.

“This year I’ve been a lot more healthy, and I haven’t had to take a lot of time off compared to last year when I had to take a month and a half off of doing absolutely nothing,” he said. “It was tough, but this year…I’ve been healthier, and it’s good to be able to train all year without any injuries.”

Familiar with pulling off big throws in the midst of adversity and imperative situations, Tayala is accustomed to performing on big stages.

Tayala, a product of the two-time Ohio State Champion McDonald High School track and field team (1999, 2011), came from a program rich in track and field history. Known for grooming outstanding track athletes who have gone on to compete at the collegiate level, McDonald prepared Tayala well for Division I track and field, as he was an Ohio State Champion in the shot put (64’8″) and in the discus (197′).

“The guys’ implements…are much heavier in college, so it takes a little time to develop the strength to handle the heavier implements,” Lawson said. “Matthias was a special athlete coming in out of high school, and coach Fanger had watched him over a few years during his high school career and had a pretty good idea that he could be successful, and he has all the tools. He has the toolbox to go with it because he has the thought process and strong mind and conviction to being a great thrower.”

Tayala said Fanger has not only watched Tayala grow over the years but also molded him into a more independent athlete.

“The biggest thing (Fanger’s) doing now for me is letting me go on my own and discover things for myself so I can get smarter as a thrower, where before he kind of mentored me and tried to push me,” Tayala said. “Now he’s trying to help me grow up.”

Tayala has undoubtedly evolved these past few years, developing from a promising high school prospect into a record-breaking college athlete.

Even though there aren’t many records left for Tayala to conquer, he said he still tries to raise the bar and go for a PR every time he throws. Each time he breaks a record, it instantaneously becomes a special moment for him, although the memory of his record-breaking throw that earned him the title of 2014 National Champion is by far his favorite, he said.

“It was at the National Championships, and I won that, so that’s definitely the overall (favorite),” Tayala said.

Over the last few years, the Kent State track and field team, specifically the throwing squad, has garnered repute from Tayala’s accomplishment. The recognition he’s received for all the awards he’s earned and records he’s broken has brought much attention to Kent State and in the process, made a name for himself, as well.

“Our track and field program — and to narrow it down — our throws program at Kent State has to be the best. If you look at national champions and national qualifiers, All-Americans, it has to be, if not the best, one of the best for Kent State, and to build on that is something special,” Tayala said.

Who is Danniel Thomas?

It’s a question Thomas wishes to answer for everybody, and the best place to look for the answer is Westmoreland, Jamaica — Thomas’ hometown.

Three years ago after graduating high school, Thomas heard a friend back home talk about Kent State. She did her research, talked to the coaching staff and without so much as a visit, she chose to attend Kent State because she felt it was a place where she could shine. She wanted to go to a college where she could make a difference.

“I came to Kent with the intention to make a difference and make a mark, so that’s been my driving force,” Thomas said. “In my three years, that I’ve been here, I want to leave Kent State with no (one who) has to ask who Danniel Thomas is because everyone knows who Danniel Thomas is.”

If you were to ask her, Thomas would definitely tell you she has made a difference in the throwing program, as evidenced by her accomplishments thus far.

“When I was coming here, everybody was like where’s Kent State, and now when I go back home, nobody asks the question anymore,” Thomas said. “I wanted to put Kent State on the map. Now when you go to nationals, a lot of people know of the program and know that people are starting to want to come here and be a part of this program because of the mark that we’ve set.”

Thomas herself has made great strides since enrolling in Kent State, Lawson said.

“Danniel has really improved her technique,” Lawson said. “The implements stay the same from high school to college, but the technique and the strength levels go up. Since her technique has gotten drastically better and her strength levels have gone up, that’s how she’s gone from a mid-45-foot shot putter to a 58-foot shot putter, and a 160s discus thrower to a 185 and 200-plus person.”

Thomas’ success has been in her ability to focus on technique and form, not on breaking a record every time.

“I never go into (meets) thinking about records,” Thomas said. “The first thing that’s on my mind like for a championship or anything like that is I just want to do my best to ensure that I’m the top person that’s supposed to score the best in that event for Kent, and whatever byproduct I get after that, I’m grateful for it.”

Every “byproduct” is special to Thomas, but her fondest memory of breaking a school record might surprise you.

“It was the discus record last year at Akron,” Thomas said. “That’s the one that’s most memorable to me.”

Because Thomas has found more conference and national success in the shot put than in the discus, one would assume her favorite memory would entail an unforgettable shot put throw, but her record-shattering discus throw of 194’-10” at the Akron-Campbell-Wright Memorial meet last season takes the cake.

Thomas said she was having a rough week of practice because her technique was off, but on the day of the meet, it all came together, as she made her hard work count and bore the fruits of her labor.

“When I stepped into the ring, I was just focusing on my technique,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t thinking going big or going hard or anything like that. I just went in, focused on my technique and when I heard them say 194 (feet), I was so surprised I couldn’t even come back on my next throw because I was just so overwhelmed and overjoyed.”

Thomas’ preference for discus is what makes her so successful in her secondary event, even though she’s gotten better results from the shot put.

“My heart lies with the discus because it’s the event I started with,” Thomas said. “When I just started throwing, the first event I started doing was the discus.

The Jamaican native began throwing in eighth grade, and because the school system in Jamaica is different from that of the U.S., girls weren’t allowed to compete in throwing events until they were in eighth grade, she said.

As soon as Thomas picked up a discus, though, her career took off. She threw discus for about two and a half years until she picked up the shot put.

“The shot put was a bigger pool of older kids, so back then it was harder to compete,” she said.

Once Thomas was old enough, she was primed and poised to challenge older competitors. While at Edwin Allen High School (in Middlesex, Jamaica), she wanted to flip the script, drop the discus and focus exclusively on shot put, but her coach, Marlon Gayle, saw her potential in the discus event and encouraged her to tackle both events.

She continued participating in shot and discus under Gayle’s tutelage, which became her inspiration to pursue track and field in college. His two years of prodding made all the difference in Thomas’ choice of college.

“He was really the one who took me from nothing to where I was by the time I graduated high school,” Thomas said. “ “Other schools started noticing me and saying they wanted me to come to their schools.”

Prepping for outdoor

Much like Tayala, who aims to build off last year’s success at nationals, Thomas has a similar game plan heading into a fresh outdoor campaign that already alludes to accomplishment.

“My first step is to try to retain both (MAC) titles in the outdoors because I had the discus and shot put (titles) for the outdoor season…and then of course I’m going to move on to the national meet and try to either place better than what I did last year or equal the performance that I did,” Thomas said.

Given Thomas and Tayala’s past success, as well as the success of other Kent State throwers that have come before them, the program continues to thrive in the way of recruiting new talent.

“Success breeds more success — a combination of their unique athletic ability and their skill as athletes and their skill as having a good tough mental aspect to go with it, and a good coaching staff, especially with Nathan Fanger,” Lawson said.

Even though Tayala and Thomas’ time as Golden Flashes grows short, Lawson can relax knowing the best is still yet to come for his star throwers. The sky is the limit for Tayala and Thomas, and no record is safe whenever they step foot in the ring.

“When they’re in the ring, good things can happen,” Lawson said of Tayala and Thomas. “It gets harder and harder to continue to throw further, but I don’t think either of those two have hit their maximum capabilities yet, and I think for the program it’s a lot of fun any time those two step in the ring and something crazy or good can happen.”

Contact Richie Mulhall at [email protected].