Florence track and field

Mackenzie Heikes throws the javelin during the Florence Jailbreak track and fie meet Friday.

FLORENCE -- Unlike most of her track and field teammates, there was no way for Mackenzie Heikes to work on her craft once the world shut down due to COVID-19. Not fully, anyway.

While others could run or jump pretty much anywhere, javelins remained locked inside Florence High School. She likely couldn’t anyway, since she was recovering from a torn rotator cuff suffered while playing for the Gophers basketball team, but by the time practice for this season finally started, it had been two whole years since she last picked up a javelin.

And unlike her teammates, Heikes doesn’t have a coach dedicated to her event. The senior, who is the only javelin thrower on the team, instead searches wherever she can for tips on how to improve. That includes watching YouTube videos while training to pick up on the little things that can make all the difference at the highest level of competition.

“Everything I’ve accomplished has just been me trying to be natural and doing what I can,” Heikes said.

With the help of a sports doctor, Heikes recovered from her rotator cuff injury in three months, just in time for the track season to be shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were some things she could do during that time to imitate the throwing motion and muscle memory of tossing a javelin, since it’s similar to throwing a football.

But mostly, she worked on getting stronger, trying to find the bright side of the situation by working on things that might get put in the back of the mind during normal training. Her upper body strength increased dramatically, and by the time she finally picked that javelin up again, the results spoke for themselves.

“I was back to being healthy and I was working out all the time, so I was stronger than I ever was before,” Heikes said. “I think having that season off almost helped me, because it kept me from throwing off my arm when I was fragile. Now I’m doing better than I would have otherwise.”

The last time Heikes had competed was her sophomore year at the 2019 Arizona State Championship, when on the biggest stage she had the throw of her life at that point. Coming into the final, she was averaging in the high-90-foot range, which was enough to qualify for state but not quite to place among the best. That day, though, something clicked and she threw 110 feet, beating her personal record by 9 feet and giving her a sixth-place finish.

Now, that result is what she expects at every meet, which has meant winning almost every time this season. Her current personal record came April 3 at the Blue Ridge Invitational in Lakeside, where she threw for 117 feet. That ranks her third in Division III heading into next week’s state championship, where she hopes to once against exceed expectations by hitting her ultimate goal of 130 feet.

And how does she plan on getting there?

“Just throw harder,” she said with a laugh. “I’m gonna keep working on my form and get stronger.”

Her mom, Nancy, always knew Heikes had a good arm. She thought that would lead to her becoming a softball pitcher, having no idea that javelin was even an option. Then, Trevor Heikes, Mackenzie’s brother, got into the newly sanctioned event and excelled. Seeing that success already on the family, Heikes decided to try it out her freshman year, and took to it naturally.

Now, Trevor owns the school record on the boys side and she has the one for the girls.

“It was weird seeing them holding that giant spear, and that they both had the talent to chuck it was the funny part,” Nancy Heikes said. “I love watching her. We come to every meet, and she’s done a great job.”

As a senior, Heikes plans to leave everything she has at the state championship, which takes place May 14 and 15 as Desert Vista High School in Phoenix. Currently, the best throw in Division III, by more than 20 feet, is Jade Kwinn of Tucson Sabino at 148 feet.

It would take quite the leap to get there, but Heikes knows as well as anyone that this sport is full of surprises.

“I’ve been there (at state) before, but I have big goals this year, so I’m really looking forward to going,” Heikes said. “It’s one of the more individual events, but it’s cool when you’re going back to your team and they all know you helped them out.”