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M-G's Jones, Freel overcome injuries for state success

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CHAMP: Madison-Grant senior A.J. Jones rosins up his shot put before taking a throw in the final round of the Hoosier State Relays small school state championship Saturday in Bloomington. Jones recovered from surgery to repair a torn labrum in his right, throwing shoulder in November of 2017 to win the competition on Saturday.
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ARGYLLS: Just moments after winning a state shot put championship at the Hoosier State Relays on Saturday, Madison-Grant senior A.J. Jones offers words of encouragement to Payton Freel just moments before she began her state-medalist seventh place performance in the girls competition.

BY SCOTT HUNT - shunt@chronicle-tribune.com

BLOOMINGTON — More than 100 miles of travel separates Madison-Grant High School from the Gladstein Fieldhouse on the campus of Indiana University, but the road a pair of Argyll seniors took to earning state medals in the Hoosier State Relay indoor track championships has been much longer.

In fact, there were times over the past 16 months A.J. Jones and Payton Freel weren't sure the trip would even be possible.

Jones tore the labrum in his right shoulder during the 2017 football season and had surgery in November of that year. Freel then tore the ACL in her knee for a second time preparing for the 2017 girls basketball season, and both faced a long, arduous road to recovery.

It's safe to say the M-G duo is back, and Saturday's performance in the small school shot put state championships at the HSR shows Jones and Freel might be better than ever.

Jones' throw of 51 feet, 8.5 inches was more than a foot further than any of the other 23 competitors, earning him a state championship. Freel followed in the girls competition with a seventh-place finish and an all-state medal.

For both it was a more than satisfactory result considering all the work it took to get there.

"I did have a little doubt there at the beginning when I first tore my labrum," Jones said while taking a moment away from helping Freel prepare for her throws on Saturday. "I thought it was done with. Then it was, 'Hey we're going to do this. We're going to try to get back and do the best I can.

"I did everything I could, did everything the doctor told me, didn't do anything sooner than the doctor told me to," he added. "I went in for my three month check up and he said you're at five or six months with your shoulder. A lot of guys don't get back this quick. I'm pretty happy with what I've done."

After missing the entire indoor season in 2018, Jones' doctor told him he probably wouldn't be throwing the discus during outdoor season either, but that didn't end up being the case. Jones was just three inches shy of a sectional championship in the shot put and finished runner-up and added a third-place finish in the Kokomo Sectional discus to advance to regional in both events. But the season ended at the Warsaw Regional after he recorded no distance in the shot and narrowly missed advancing to state with a fourth-place throw in discus.

Since then Jones has not only worked to get stronger but also changed his throwing technique in the shot from a gliding to a spinning approach, and all his work has already paid dividends other than a state champions medal in indoor track. Jones unleashed a discus throw of 167-feet, 10-inches in M-G's first outdoor meet at Eastern to set a new school record. That throw would have earned him a fifth-place finish in the 2018 state championship.

Jones admitted his shoulder didn't feel 100 percent until just a few weeks ago. 

"About two weeks after wrestling season ended," he stated about when the shoulder started feeling good. "Wrestling season was tough. It gave me a little trouble here and there, but finally after I'd gotten out of wrestling season and was into track for about two weeks it kind of settled down and it feels really good right now."

Jones ended this wrestling season with a trip to the state finals and ended Saturday with a state title in the indoor shot put. T.J. Herniak, Argylls' third-year track and field coach, said he was trying to keep his emotion in check between the time the boys competition ended and the girls started.  

"I'm overjoyed," said Herniak, a 2008 M-G grad and former thrower. "I'm trying really hard to just hold it together because Payton's still got to throw, but I just want to run around and scream. I'm through the roof for him."

Immediately following Jones' win, he took to helping Freel get ready for her competition with a few simple words of advice.

"Just go out here and do what she knows how to do," is what Jones offered to Freel. "Don't worry about what anybody else throws, go out there do what you know how to do and that's all you can do."

Freel lost her entire freshman track season to her first ACL injury then bounced back with a great sophomore campaign, winning a sectional championship in discus and finishing third in the shot put to earn a trip to  regional in both. She was 10th in the regional in discus and sixth in shot put, but watched senior teammate Savannah Leas earn a trip to state in the latter.

"As a sophomore I don't think we had any expectations of what she would be at that time," Herniak said of Freel. "We got about midway into the season and we started to realize that Payton could be really, really good.

"We just continued to work with her, we got the point where Savannah was heading towards state and Payton was able to kind of tag along and get that experience," he added. "I think that's when it kind of set in for her that, if I work hard enough, I can do this too. She started putting in a lot of work at the end of here sophomore year."

As with many ACL injuries, there was no physical contact involved during that fateful basketball practice her junior year. A cut and a pop and both basketball and track season were essentially lost.

"Right after I tore my ACL the second time I looked at my dad and said what else is next," Freel said. "I told him I don't know what else I can do. He said you're just going to have to get right back on the horse. We're going to have to work through it. I said 'Yes sir'. He really gives me a lot of my motivation so that's where we've been.

"It's been crazy," she added. "Rehab and constantly outside practicing with my dad and trying to be positive about this year as I can. It's really been hectic but it's been fun."

Freel didn't have her best day throwing the shot put, and the 36-feet, three-inch toss that earned her a seventh place medal left her a bit disappointed at first. But the realization of her work to get to the medal podium began to set in as did the possibilities that lay immediately ahead in the outdoor season.

"Just making it this weekend boosted my confidence, just being able to compete after having two knee surgeries," Freel said. "I wasn't all the way happy with it. I was just trying to make my coaches and teammates proud. I was hoping to maybe PR that meet and maybe move up a couple of spots, now looking back on it, I realize I didn't do as bad as I thought."