Gaza Odunaiya is familiar with Athens.
It isn’t only because of her throwing days as a Bobcat, though.
The Ohio senior is an Athens native and graduated from Athens High School in 2015. After considering other schools during her recruiting process, she ultimately decided to stay close to home and throw for coach Nick Pero and the Bobcats.
“Although I had originally wanted to go to school far away, I realized that, by living on campus, it was kind of like a home away from home in its own way,” Odunaiya said. “I was able to come in and get comfortable pretty quickly.”
She had good reason to be comfortable. When she entered the program in the fall of 2015, Ohio had three other throwers at the time, each with at least one year of experience.
This year, however, the narrative is different. Odunaiya enters the season as the Bobcats’ lone upperclassmen thrower, making this group of throwers Pero’s most inexperienced since he came to Ohio. But Odunaiya said she sees the glass as half full, rather than half empty.
“I don’t see it as a bad thing that our team is so young,” Odunaiya said. “I actually see it as a positive attribute because although they have a long way to go, they will eventually have a very strong program here.”
In May, the Bobcats lost former throwers Cassidy Cleland, Jordan Porter and Emma Ryan to graduation. As a result, Pero recruited freshmen Autumn Mohan, Briahna Sark and Rachel Simpson, and three sophomores: Abby Moore, Emma Russ, and Sophia Yantko, to complement Odunaiya. So far, Pero has nothing but praise for his throwing captain.
“It can be a real up-and-down beginning to a freshman’s career,” Pero said. “Luckily, we have Gaza, who in years past, had been the ‘younger’ one on the team. Now, she’s the oldest, so she’s had to step up her game a little bit. But, she’s taken it upon herself pretty well and is becoming the team leader that we needed her to be with such a young team.”
That leadership should be no surprise, considering the amount of contributions Odunaiya has made over the last three seasons. Last season, Ohio’s highest recorded distance from weight throw, hammer throw and discus were all courtesy of Odunaiya. She was also one of two Bobcat throwers to place at the MAC Championships in Buffalo this May, finishing third in the hammer throw with a distance of• 55.23 m.
But she isn’t satisfied with just that. With one season still ahead of her, she believes she has much more to accomplish.
“I’ve always wanted to break (Ohio’s) weight throw record,” Odunaiya said. “I would also like to break (Ohio’s) hammer throw record—that’s been a goal of mine going into this season.”
She’s not too far from accomplishing those goals. The hammer record, set by Donyelle Brown in 2014, is 57.41 m. Last season, Odunaiya nearly topped the mark, throwing 56.54 m. in the hammer at the Ohio Open. In addition, her weight throw distances only seem to be on the incline. She saw an increase in each of her throws from last year’s Marshall Opener to the Kent State National Qualifier, which included three meets in between.
Odunaiya’s presence at practice has been nothing but beneficial to the teammates around her. Ohio has yet to compete in a meet this winter, but Simpson, a freshman from Port Clinton, didn’t hesitate to explain just how important Odunaiya’s presence has been for the unit at practice.
“I love Gaza,” Simpson said with a chuckle. “The first couple weeks of school, she wasn’t intimidating and instead welcomed us in with open arms. I tend to ask a lot of questions, but because Gaza is so approachable, I never hesitate going to her. It’s nice having someone to be there for you from the start.”
Simpson also added that by watching the senior perfect her craft, both she and her teammates are able to learn a great deal.
“When she’s throwing, it’s helpful to watch to see just what she’s doing, because she’s had so much success in the past in the weight and hammer,” Simpson said. “It’s nice that we have her as sort of a foundation to build off of.”
Odunaiya didn’t forget to credit Pero for the amount of success she’s had over the last three years. Without him, she says, her accomplishments as a thrower wouldn’t be possible.
“(Pero) has been very helpful,” Odunaiya said. “Our throwing roster isn’t necessarily big in terms of numbers, but he’s always been dedicated to this small group of girls. He’s always around, always ensuring we’re doing what we need to in order to improve as a team.”
With the Marshall Opener coming up, Pero said he only expects great things out of Odunaiya this season.
“She’s done a great job of being our ‘frontrunner’ these last couple of years,” Pero said. “I’m really looking forward to (this season). It’s fun to kind of sit back and watch it all unfold before you.”