When Jeneva Stevens returned as an assistant coach to the Southern Illinois University track and field program she graduated from in 2012, she began to make an appraisal of the athletes in her orbit.

The connection Stevens said she made with 2021 Hempfield graduate Daniel Norris — a sophomore thrower — came instantly and effortlessly.

“I personally relate to Dan,” said Stevens, who is in her first season as the throwers coach at her alma mater. “His nervous system is wired like mine, and I understand his mindset when he’s in practice because he reminds me of myself. He’s actually the closest athlete that reminds me of myself that I’ve ever seen before.”

That’s a connection worth maintaining.

Norris, who won a Missouri Valley Conference championship in the discus last weekend, will travel to Sacramento, Calif., to compete for the first time in the preliminary round of the NCAA national championships beginning Wednesday.

It’s a trip that could allow the former WPIAL and PIAA discus champion to remain in lockstep with Stevens — a three-time NCAA champion, 13-time All-American, 15-time Missouri Valley Conference champion and Southern Illinois Hall of Fame recipient.

“Dan is a go-getter,” Stevens said. “He’s focused. He doesn’t let challenges get in his way. He’s even-keeled and determined — responsible, reliable. He’s everything a coach would wish for. It sounds generic, but it’s true.”

Norris, who also competes during the outdoor season in shot put and hammer throw, won his first conference championship in the discus at Indiana State University with a throw of 180 feet, 1 inch. His personal-best throw in the discus was 190 feet, 2 inches, which came in a second-place finish at the April 21-22 Jesse Owens Track & Field Classic at Ohio State.

“It felt great,” said Norris of winning his conference title. “I definitely could have thrown a lot farther than that so I’m super happy that I won. I was very, very happy. That’s the only way I can describe it.”

The strides Norris has made since enrolling at Southern Illinois have been significant.

Norris’ best throw in the discus as a freshman came at the 2022 Joey Haines Invitational, when he notched a distance of 161 feet, 7 inches, which was good for a fifth-place finish. He went on to finish in 11th place at the Missouri Valley Conference meet with a throw of 160 feet, 2 inches.

 “The main thing I worked on recently is basically just staying long in the disc,” Norris said. “I’m only 5 feet 11 so I’m not long and I can’t really do anything [about that].”

That Norris was able to add nearly 30 feet to his personal-best throw in a year’s time is quite an accomplishment, Stevens said.

Hempfield graduate Daniel Norris competes in the shot put for Southern Illinois. (Southern Illinois Athletics)

“Coming in, I told Dan, ‘You know, sophomore year is when you have your breakout year,’” she said. “I told him that at the beginning of the year because in our program that we are running the second year is when you see what kind of athlete you’ve got.”

That athleticism, paired with the work ethic of an engineering major, is a lethal combination for the rest of the NCAA field, Stevens said.

“Dan is a constant,” she said. “It’s like all is right with the world when Dan is outside because, that’s something you know, Dan will be at practice today — even if it’s optional. You find that the work you put in, it will bring those results. Every day he comes and he works hard.

“He’s getting those results time after time, and I’m telling myself, ‘OK, don’t get used to this because this is not normal,’ but I know that I can count on him to get it done.”

And he just may not be done this season.

Norris said he is looking to improve on his personal-best throw this week in Sacramento.

“I’m still hoping to throw farther at regionals, but if somebody would’ve told me that I would have gone from almost 49 meters to almost 58 meters I would have called you an idiot or crazy, but it happened.”

No matter what happens, Norris said gaining the experience of competing at the national championship level should prove to be valuable moving forward in his career.

“It’s a lot of competition once you get higher up,” he said. “This year everyone just exploded, which was awesome.

“If I just keep refining my techniques, if I get stronger, faster and just more fluid through the circle, I feel like I can just do something with it.”

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.

John Santa

John is a copy editor and page designer at the Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at jsanta@unionprogress.com.