By ELLIOTT DENMAN
Amazing but true - shot putting has become a spectator sport in New Jersey.
The season-long duels between Nick Vena, the sensational Morristown High School freshman and frosh national record-breaker, and Mike Alleman, the truly talented Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School senior, have been enthralling Garden State fans all winter and spring. And now this road show heads to North Carolina, where they join a star-studded Nike Outdoor Nationals cast gathered from the rest of America.
New Jersey has no shortage of top-rate sprinters, hurdlers and middle and longer- distance runners, of course, but all these faster-twitched people have had to fight for audience share with Vena and Alleman.
Typical was the season-capping NJSIAA Meet of Champions, staged on a Thursday evening, June 5th (after being weathered-out the day before) at South Plainfield High School's Frank Jost Field.
As the runners strutted their stuff on the straightaway and around the 400-meter oval, Vena and Alleman flexed their muscles at the nearby shot put ring, and hundreds of shot-aholics gathered at the area roared their approval of every mighty heave.
When the bombs ceased bursting in the South Plainfield air, Vena had snared the gold medal with a toss of 65 feet, 3 Â½ inches, while Alleman settled for the silver at 64-4.
It was a seasonal best for neither.
Vena had bombed one out 67-10 1/4, at the Morris County Relays meet, to demolish the previous national frosh outdoor record, 63 feet even, by Stroud, Oklahoma's Kevin Bookout in 1999.
Alleman's gone 66-0 1/4 , his winner at the NJSIAA Group III finals.
Indoors, Vena reached 66-7 1/4 at the Nike Indoor Nationals in Landover, Md., to crumble the old first-year man's record of 60 feet even, set by Bookout in 1999.
Alleman had an undercover best of 63-8 Â½, at the NJSIAA Group III finals, held at the Bennett Indoor Bubble in Toms River.
Vena and Alleman had met a total of 16 times, winter and spring, through South Plainfield, gathering crowds wherever they unwound and let fly, and it turned into an 8-8 dead heat. The tie will now be broken in Greensboro and with it will mark the end of the sport's most intriguing rivalries in recent years.
They come at you from very different directions.
Vena is a lefty, Alleman a righty. Vena's taller (6-4 to Alleman's 6-1), Alleman's weightier (285 to Vena's 265.) Alleman's heading to the University of Connecticut this fall, Vena's merely a rising high school sophomore.
The 12-pound iron-ball event in Greensboro should be sizzling. Good as the Garden Staters are, they're far from the overwhelming class of the field. An absolutely loaded entry list of 22 also includes such mighty young men as Stephen Saenz of Texas (2008 best of 67-3 Â½), Brandon Pounds of Indiana (66-4 1/2), Corey Jones of Missouri (66-3 3/4), and Hayden Baillio of Texas (66-1 1/4.)
Only regret to Greensboro-goers is that national leader Jordan Clarke of Alaska (with a huge PR of 71-3) hasn't filed an entry.
Don't let the alphabetics of the 22-man lineup confuse you.
A is for Alleman, first on the list. V is for Vena, 21st on the list.
That is not 20 degrees of separation. They've been close rivals all year.
As Alleman said earlier this year, "I try to only worry about myself, but at the same time I do have to keep what he( Vena) does in the back of my mind. If he makes a big throw, I try to keep it in the back of my mind so that it motivates me to throw better.
"It's a lot of fun, I love competing against Nick whether I win or lose."
At the same time, Alleman can't help but look up to the younger Vena and his achievements. "I always know I have to throw my best to beat Nick," he's said. "It (their rivalry) keeps me very motivated and excited. We make each other so much better, so the more we see each other, the better it is for both of us.
"He's (Vena) always been a great push. I can't do all this without the competition to motivate me." Alleman's 2007 best was a 59-11 Â½ indoors, but last year's NON at Greensboro was a disappointment. He finished just ninth at 58-9 Â½.
Vena, meanwhile, was getting ready for the 2008 fireworks close to home, as a not-so-tightly-held secret, training under the watchful eye of his dad, Victor Vena, himself a thrower and scholastic coach, andthe expert guidance of long-time family friend Tony Naclerio, the noted Rutgers throws coach and former USA Olympic throws team coach.
"He's (Vena) very, very unique," Naclerio has said.
"It's amazing how far he's come. He was falling down in sixth grade. His feet were bigger than his body."
"He's an athletic thrower," said proud pop Victor Vena. "He's not a brute. Some guys just try to power the ball out there. That's not Nick."
After erasing the U.S. age-14 record early this winter, Vena kept right on going, crashing through barrier after barrier.
Next was the U.S. frosh indoor record - Bookout's 60-0 heave dating back to 1999. Vena got it up to 66-7 Â½ before the winter season was out. He turned 15 on April 16 - and kept on improving. After Greensboro and into 2008-9-10, Vena plans to take aim at all the other National records - Bookout's 68-10 3/4 as a sophomore in 2000; Bossier City, Louisianan Arnold Campbell's 71-10 1/4 as a junior in 1983, and maybe-just-maybe, Texan Michael Carter's out-of-sight 81-3 Â½ as a senior at Dallas's Jefferson High School back in 1979.
Within five years of that epic toss, Carter was both an Olympic silver medalist and a Super Bowl ring-winner as a San Francisco 49er.
As Vena told the Newark Star-Ledger's Jim Lambert earlier this year, "It's (Carter's 81-3 Â½) one of the greatest records ever and I think about it sometimes.
"But I don't want to put any pressure on myself, either. I just want to work hard every day and see where it gets me."
Vena and Alleman have already traveled humongous distances. And their journeys figure to continue for years and years, taking big-time strides through the history books.
Just look at all the shot putting greats that have come out of New Jersey in past seasons.. Three went on to the National Football League - Al Blozis (who figured to be an Olympic champion, if the 1940 Games hadn't been erased by war, and then starred for the Giants, before his 1945 death in combat); NFL Hall of Famer-to-be Elvin Bethea, and Ron Dayne.
Add to them Kevin and Glenn DiGiorgio, Rudy Guevara, Tyrone Garland, Ian Pyka, Greg Cortina, Steve Adams and Bruce Heide, and so many more, all notables on the state, regional and national stages.
As the latest in the line, Vena and Alleman keep proving that Garden State's musclemen measure up with the best.