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Runner Troy Fraley, a Gonzaga University track athlete, works out at Spokane Falls Community College Tuesday, May 16, 2017. Fraley has the fastest time of the year in the steeplechase. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Former Newport star Aaron Castle in fourth straight NCAA meet; GU’s Fraley favored in steeplechase

Aaron Castle has come a long way since junior high school, when he first heaved an 8-pound shot in his parents’ driveway back in Newport.

“It’s been quite a ride,” said Castle, a senior at Arizona who will compete in his fourth straight NCAA Track and Field meet and hope for a spot on the podium after Wednesday night’s shot put finals.

Castle isn’t the only athlete with local ties to compete in this week’s meet in Eugene, but he’s perhaps the most unlikely.

Small-town kids are often hampered by poor facilities, although Newport coach Bill Burnett gave Castle a helping hand by extending the school’s shot put pit by 11 feet, to 74 feet.

However, Castle’s natural talent in the shot and discus placed him atop all classifications before his senior year at Newport and was ranked in the top 10 nationally in the shot as a junior.

Not surprisingly, Castle had several scholarship offers before settling on the Wildcats in the spring of 2012.

The adjustment wasn’t easy.

“At Newport, I was the big fish in a small pond,” said Castle, who graduated from high school at 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds. “I got a lot of support from my high school coaches, but going to the next level was quite a bit different.”

“I learned a lot my first year with strength training and technique,” Castle said.

After redshirting 2013, Castle focused mostly on the shot, placing 22nd in the NCAAs as a redshirt freshman, 16th as a sophomore and 15th a year ago.

Going into Wednesday’s competition, Castle ranks 11th with a season-best toss of 64 feet, 5 inches. A top-eight finish would put him on the podium at storied Hayward Field at the University of Oregon.

“My goal is to make the final and make the podium,” and I think I’m capable of making a big throw,” said Castle, who plans to keep training while continuing his studies with an eye toward becoming a physical therapist.

On paper, the region’s best shot at a top finish rests with Gonzaga steeplechaser Troy Fraley, who also competes on Wednesday.

The redshirt junior from Kalispell owns the best time in the nation this year, eight minutes, 39.30 seconds in the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford on May 5. That remains the only sub-8:40 time in the nation this year.

Last week, he became the first Zag to win at the NCAA West Regional, crossing the line in 8:44.99 at Mike A. Myers Stadium on the campus of the University of Texas.

Fraley also is the first men’s qualifier for the national championships in program history. Shelby Mills is the first overall; she ran the steeple in Eugene on the women’s side the past two seasons.

Fraley is the lone collegian in the country under 8:40 so far this season.

Washington State’s C.J. Allen is expected to contend for a podium spot in the 400 hurdles. The senior from Allyn, Washington, is coming off a season-best 49.54 at the Pac-12 championships, just two-hundredths of a second behind Rai Benjamin of UCLA.

The 400 hurdles semis are scheduled for Wednesday night.

Other local participants include John Dressel of Colorado (Mt. Spokane High School) in the 5,000 meters, Tanner Anderson of Oregon (North Central) in the 10,000; and two more WSU athletes, Brock Eager in the hammer and Alissa Brooks-Johnson in the heptathlon.