North Hills grad McCune blossoms into elite decathlete for Akron
When Alex McCune graduated from North Hills and joined the University of Akron track and field team as a walk-on, he didn't think he would be talking three years later about defending his MAC championship.
“I was just fighting for a position on the team and trying to find my niche,” McCune said. “I was hoping to find success, be a part of a good team. I didn't think that was going to happen.”
McCune found his niche, all right. Ten of them, in fact.
Going into the conference championship meet, which starts Thursday and runs through Saturday, the junior is the defending decathlon champion and the favorite to win again. McCune's score of 7,768 points at the Mt. SAC relays in April at Azusa Pacific University in California is the highest total in the conference this season by more than 400 points.
That score also broke the school record by more than 200 points, but the goal going into the meet wasn't to break any records.
“When we went to California, we said, ‘Let's just score 7,500,' ” McCune said of the total necessary to qualify for the NCAA championships.
He surpassed that total by wide margin, continuing his trend of exceeding expectations at Akron. McCune was a hurdler and long jumper at North Hills and began his collegiate career working with the Zips jumpers.
Coach Dennis Mitchell took note of his ability and decided to try McCune in the multiples, including the decathlon in the outdoor season and the heptathlon during the indoor season.
“I was noticing his athleticism, his overall athleticism,” Mitchell said, noting that watching McCune do something as routine as catch a Frisbee showed an athlete with exceptional coordination. “He adapted real quickly, especially with the more complicated events.”
McCune has come to appreciate the unique qualities of his training regimen for the events, such as the pole vault and the discus, he had no experience with before college.
“It's unbelievably exciting,” he said. “Imagine if I was just a hurdler still, and day after day I was training for that. It's nice to have a break to do something.
“It makes it more entertaining and more enjoyable, that's for sure.”
His rise has been steady. As a freshman, he was second in the MAC in the heptathlon and fourth in the decathlon, and he earned a scholarship. The next season, he won the conference championships in both.
McCune set the MAC heptathlon record during this indoor season and placed sixth at the national championships, earning his first first-team All-America honor.
The pole vault, which was new to McCune at Akron, has become one of his strengths. His mark of 17 feet, 10 1⁄2 inches at the NCAA indoor championships this season set a U.S. heptathlon record.
Now, there's more to be done, starting with this week's MAC championships, where the field in the decathlon will test McCune, Mitchell said.
“It's one of the strongest events at the conference championships,” he said.
And while the physical challenges of competing in 10 events are present, being mentally strong will be just as important for McCune, his coach said.
“It's a lot like golf. You're going to get some bogeys and some birdies,” Mitchell said. “You just don't want those double bogeys.”
After the MAC championships, there's the business of the NCAA meet, which starts with the preliminary round May 29 in Jacksonville, Fla., and finals beginning June 11 in Eugene, Ore.
Mitchell said McCune can hang with the best in the nation and that with continued work and good health, next season could culminate with a national championship.
Considering his quick ascent into the national conversation in the decathlon, McCune might even be able to add something else to his resume: Olympic competitor.
“He's got the talent to pursue that,” Mitchell said.
The 2016 Summer Games are in Rio de Janeiro, and McCune, who is quick to credit his “amazing coaches, phenomenal training group, phenomenal support system” for helping him find success, will take his shot at representing the U.S. — and Pittsburgh.
“That's part of life I want to explore,” he said. “Who wants to get a job? I'll run it dry.”
Mark Stevens is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.