When Austin Kratz was a freshman in high school, more than one coach suggested the Dock Mennonite (PA) Academy athlete try middle distance.
He certainly looked the part.
Compact and lean like that of a 800m to 1600m runner, Kratz could have very easily slipped on to the track and gone that route.
But Rohan Grant knew better.
A few years prior, the sprints coach from Southeastern Pennsylvania formed a track and field group -- Maveric Athletic Club -- to specifically give athletes who didn't exactly look the part an opportunity to burst out of the blocks.
Nearly four years later, Kratz is still only 5-foot-9 and 145 pounds, but his appearance belies his ability, which includes a state championship in the Class AA 200m as a sophomore and the kind of PRs which are attracting major Division I universities. His 6.92/10.66/21.17/33.93 speed shouldn't give pause to any major Division I university searching for an up-and-comer.
He's one of the top unsigned sprinters in Pennsylvania left on recruiting boards. Currently, the senior is taking some time off on a mission with his school in Mexico City.
"When we started working with Austin as a sprinter, we saw how he benefitted from the experience and developed into one of our veteran guys," Grant said. "Right now, he's probably the fastest athlete we've had, especially when you consider what he's done from his junior to senior year. And we're really excited to see where he's going."
Kratz currently owns a U.S. No. 1 indoor mark in the 300m (33.93), a U.S. No. 2 effort in the 200m (21.38), and a U.S. No. 6 mark in the 55m (6.40). He's just 0.16 seconds away from tying a state record in the 200m and has a shot to vie for a national championship in the event.
But in some ways, the high school senior -- who's clocked a wind-legal 10.66 100m time over the spring -- hasn't lived up to his massive potential, either. After that sophomore championship in the 200m, he failed to win an indoor title in the 60m or 200m as a junior. Then that spring, he false-started at districts in the 200m, failing to qualify for the state championships.
"Austin is tough on himself on all aspects of his race," said Tim Eger, Kratz's high school coach at Dock Mennonite. "He's always looking to improve on everything. When he's blasting good starts, he feels like he didn't have the best one and when he's closing on a high rate of speed during a training session, he feels like he can get one more that's better or faster. He's his biggest critic."
But with the graduation of the state's top two sprinters -- Terrance Laird among all classes and Jahvel Hemphill in Class AA -- last spring, that leaves room for Kratz to finally fulfill all that potential. Not only does the senior want to win another state title, but there are national competitions to think about and possibility even a qualifier for Team USA at the IAAF U20 Championships in July.
Grant doesn't want Kratz to get ahead of himself, though. He continues to coach perspective when it comes to development. Kratz still hasn't broken 22 seconds in the 200m, but he ran his best race (21.17) this past summer and is nearing a landmark effort.
"Pursuing times is a futile thing," said Grant, who watched Kratz finish fourth at the AAU Junior Olympics in July with a 21.42 in the 200m, finishing fourth behind two athletes -- Khance Meyers and Tyrese Cooper -- who both went under 21 seconds. "You have to be able to compete with the best guys and be able to respond in that moment, but there also needs to be a balance between going for times and developing."
Grant marries science with art. He often preaches mechanics and fundamentals, but also likes to talk about feel. His track club is an acronym: Mobility, acceleration, velocity, endurance, and recovery. He also thinks often about how to transfer the philosophy of motion into an action on the track.
And it's one reason why Kratz has seen major improvements year-over-year, subtracting nearly 0.40 from his indoor 200m time from a year ago and 0.10 from his 55m time. Part of that is the work he's doing with Grant, as well as his work with Eger.
"To teach him how to sprint, we had to teach him how to move," Grant said. "Some of his races, over the last three years, he's gotten much better in implying the principles of sprinting, learning how to accelerate, learning how to hold proper position to maximize velocity."
And what about questions about his size?
"Philosophically, I like a big engine and a small chassis," Grant said. "He's the epitome of that philosophy."
That's not to say Grant is the only one doing the work, either. Eger works hand-in-hand with Grant during the indoor and spring seasons and has provided a support system for Kratz in training. The senior is also a stellar long jumper who went 22-10.5 as a junior and finished third at states.
"He gets supportive coaching," Eger said, "and all it takes is one look and Kratz can fix most things."
Eger is also quick to note that championships aren't the only validation for an athlete like Kratz.
"We don't really say to him, 'Let's win this or win this, and have a great showing,'" Eger said. "We're looking at his times and potentially what those times can do for him qualifying for other things. What will these times afford you?"
In the immediate picture for Kratz are critical competitions like the Pennsylvania Track and Field Coaches Associations Championships, New Balance Nationals Indoor, and of course the spring season, where the senior needs to transfer his training into success outside.
Those are all questions Kratz will answer.
But in the meantime, there's more work to do, and Kratz still has plenty of season left as one of the Pennsylvania's best sprinters.
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Contact MileSplit National Content Producer Cory Mull at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @bycorymull