By Jeff Nations
Crystal Utter had a potential dilemma on her hands at the Group 3A state track and field meet, one of her own making.
The Warren County High School senior was slated to graduate last Friday in Front Royal, the same day as the state competition in Harrisonburg. It would have been a tight schedule, but Utter still had the chance to make it back to her school in time to walk the line after finishing up her event.
Instead, Utter created her own delay by unleashing the best discus throw of her career, a toss of 109 feet, 1 inch that was good enough for sixth place in the state. That meant all-state recognition for Utter, but with that honor came a hitch. The awards ceremony wouldn't take place for more than an hour afterward, costing Utter any chance of donning that cap and gown with her classmates back at Warren County.
Tough decision? Not for Utter.
"For me, it wasn't a hard decision," said Utter, The Northern Virginia Daily's Female Athlete of the Week for June 2-June 8. "I think if someone's going to take the time to recognize me like that for something I just did, I believe I owe it to them to be there."
Utter's triumphant stance on the podium in Harrisonburg would have been enough of a happy ending, but Warren County assistant athletics director Tony Tallent made sure it would be an even better memory for Utter. Before the meet, Tallent devised a plan to make sure Utter could at least "virtually" graduate with her classmates by suggesting the use of an iPhone equipped with a FaceTime application.
As Utter rode back to Front Royal, she graduated right along with her class.
"It was awesome," Utter said. "It was definitely a different experience. My best friend, Haley Figgins, got to carry me onto the stage. It felt really good. [Warren County Principal Ernestine Jordan] kind of walked up to the phone and put out her hand, and I did a handshake with her in the car. I did the "roller coaster" with my class and even moved my invisible tassel over."
It was a great ending to an amazing season for Utter, who went from limited access to training facilities and equipment at the beginning of the year to a spot on the coveted podium by the end of it.
Evidence of Utter's unflagging perseverance manifested earlier than her senior year, though. First-year Warren County head track and field coach Joseph Owens said Utter was told as a freshman by a then-volunteer assistant coach that the discus probably wasn't the event for her.
"That wasn't very encouraging to her," Owens said. "I think that made her determined and pushed her to learn about it and become a real student of the sport."
Utter stuck with the throws, even when Warren County didn't provide a throws coach to offer instruction during her sophomore season. As a junior, Utter did the coaching herself for the first half of the season, but was glad to hand off those duties -- which included the awkward experience of attending mandatory coach's meetings -- to her father for the rest of the year.
This year was looking like more of the same, until a chance encounter with Wildcats assistant football coach Adam Orndorff when Utter and her fellow throwers needed a key to get into the weight room to train. Orndorff got them into the weight room, and not long after agreed to serve under Owens as their throws coach.
"She'd been gradually improving, but having a permanent throws coach in Adam Orndorff really helped her," Owens said. "Just having someone to reflect with and to give you feedback, that was huge."
Heading into the state meet with the eighth-best seeding throw, Utter was borderline to make the podium (reserved for top eight). Her seeding of 104-08 was actually a bit low, since she'd thrown a 106-08 at the Apple Blossom Invitational (that result wasn't available due to a technical glitch with those results), but even Utter was surprised to see that 109-foot toss.
"I was telling my coach before the meet, I remember my freshman year when I only went to one meet and was throwing in the 40s," Utter said. "It surprised me that it was 109. I thought it was maybe like 105. It was a nice surprise."
Utter, who will attend Shenandoah University next year and throw for the Hornets, plans to study pharmacy.
"She made tons and tons of improvement during her time here," Owens said. "She's just an excellent girl -- very, very driven and very smart."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>