Fritz Is An Olympic-Sized
Blue Dragon Hero
Some remember Steve Fritz as the player who hit the game-winning shot in the 1988 NJCAA Tournament championship game for Hutchinson Community College.
Some will remember Fritz as the athlete who put Blue Dragon track and field on the map after winning the junior college decathlon national championship, also in 1988.
Others will remember Fritz at Kansas State University as a duel-sport athlete and more will remember Fritz for his international track and field career that culminated with a world decathlon championship and a memorable performance at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
However Blue Dragon fans choose to remember the Gypsum, Kansas, native, all will now know Steve Fritz as the Hutchinson Quarterback Club Hall of Fame’s 12th member.
From playing in front of rabid Blue Dragon fans who packed the Sports Arena in 1988 to competing on the world’s biggest stages in front of more than 100,000 people, Fritz has left an indelible impression on those who have watched him perform and achieve.
The Shot and then the Wait
Before the 1996 Olympics, Fritz etched his name in Blue Dragon lore with “The Shot.”
In front of 7,600 raucous fans who wedged themselves into the Sports Arena for the championship game of the 1988 NJCAA Tournament, Hutchinson was playing Kankakee Community College. For Blue Dragon fans – many who had craved a national title since the tournament moved to Hutchinson in 1949 – it was another opportunity for their team to finally win it all.
Kankakee led by as many as 12 points in the first half, but the Dragons cut the deficit to five, 39-34, by halftime. Fritz, who had been stellar in the Blue Dragons’ first three games of the tournament, struggled in the first half of the title game. He struggled so much that when Blue Dragon head coach Dave Farrar told him to go in early in the second half, Fritz was shocked.
“He told me to go in and I said, “are you serious?’ ” Fritz recalled. “I just went back in and tried to do whatever I could to make up for mistakes earlier in the game. I got the opportunity and I hoped things worked out.”
With the game tight and tense going into the final minutes, Fritz was right in the thick of the action. With about 2 minutes to go, he picked up a loose ball and scored. Then trailing 74-73 in the final 30 seconds, Fritz was about to make history for Hutchinson.
Fritz got the ball in the corner, drove to the lane, sank a short one-handed shot and was fouled on the play with 22 seconds remaining. Fritz sank the free throw for a 76-74 lead and then …
During Kankakee’s final possession, the referees blew the whistle as the seconds ran off the clock. Blue Dragon fans littered the floor with toilet paper and started to celebrate. There was just one problem … the game wasn’t over yet. One second remained after a Kankakee shot bounced over the backboard.
Kankakee coaches demanded that a technical foul be assessed against Hutchinson for its fans littering the court. After a lengthy discussion, the Sports Arena court in the NJCAA Tournament is considered a neutral court and a technical was not given.
The Dragons got the ball inbounds and the party was allowed to start this time.
While the discussion was going on, Fritz and his teammates stood near center court hoping for the best and wondering what the call would be.
“We didn’t know what was going on,” Fritz said. “With the melee that took place, we all thought the game was over. Stuff was on the floor and the next thing you know, (the officials) are talking. You don’t want to lose a game like that based on something that’s out of your control.”
Fritz was named to the 1988 NJCAA All-Tournament team and was later voted as one of the Top 10 players in the Blue Dragons’ 75th Anniversary team in 2006.
Fritz shifts attention to track
Once the euphoria from the basketball national title subsided, Fritz headed to the solitude of the track.
One year earlier, Fritz had finished fifth in the decathlon at the NJCAA Championships. But that wasn’t good enough for him despite never having done the 10-event competition before his freshman season at Hutchinson.
“Over the summer (of 1987), I bought a shot put and discus and threw in the lot next to my house all summer long,” Fritz said. “I was just trying to figure some things out.”
All that work and the fact he came out of the championship basketball season in good shape physically paid off.
The 1988 NJCAA Outdoor National Championships were in Odessa, Texas. Fritz said he didn’t allow himself to think about winning the title until the second day after he completed the pole vault. After that event, he knew he had a shot to win it all.
“I knew that I could throw (javelin) and I knew that I could run (1,500 meters), so once I got past the pole, I felt pretty good.”
Fritz won the 1988 NJCAA decathlon with a Hutchinson school record of 7,015 points. At that point, the Olympics – the Summer Olympics were in Seoul, South Korea in 1988 – first became a part of the Fritz lexicon.
After Hutchinson, Fritz went to Kansas State University and competed for the Wildcats in both basketball and track in 1989 and 1990. Fritz was the Big Eight decathlon record holder (7,924 points) and was a two-time All-American, finishing sixth in the 1989 NCAA decathlon and fourth in the 1990 national championships.
Fritz then turned to international competition, earning a spot on the U.S. national track and field team 10 times.
“Once I got to Kansas State and you get to the top of the NCAA, it’s a natural evolution to start thinking international level,” Fritz said.
The 1991 season turned out to be pivotal in Fritz’s international career.
He finished fifth in the decathlon at the 1991 U.S. Track and Field Championships and then went to Sheffield, England for the World University Games. Fritz won that event with a personal record at that time of 8,059 points and was ranked fifth the world.
“I was splitting time training and I was going against guys who were training for the decathlon all 12 months,” Fritz said. “After I won the World University Games, my focus was track full time.”
Build-up for Atlanta
As the 1992 Barcelona Olympics rolled around, Fritz made his bid to make the U.S. national team and finished fifth, missing the team by two places. He broke 8,000 points for the second time in his career, though. Fritz was also second in the Indoor U.S. National Pentathlon.
With Atlanta just four years away, Fritz continued to climb the international ladder, finishing second in the U.S. Track and Field championships in 1993 and 1994, while taking seventh and fifth in the World Championships in both of those seasons.
Fritz set a world record in the indoor pentathlon in 1995, scoring 4,478 points, but the season took an unfortunate turn when nagging leg injuries kept him out of the U.S. Track and Field Championships.
Once the calendar turned to 1996, Fritz won the U.S. Indoor heptathlon, won the College Station Relays decathlon and finished second in the Olympic Trials with a new PR of 8,636 points.
Riveting Olympic Drama
With the Olympics back on American soil in Atlanta, millions watched as Fritz went toe-to-toe and throw-to-throw with the best, most powerful and deep decathlon field in the Games’ history.
Fritz didn’t go into Atlanta 100 percent physically dealing with a nagging muscle strain, and the grind of the two-day event took its toll on the former Blue Dragon.
Still, Fritz was on a pace to set a personal record after Day 1 with 4,343 points which put him in fourth.
Just like when he won the NJCAA national championship in 1988, the pole vault was a pivotal point in Fritz’s overall finish. This time though, 16 attempts in the pole vault took too much out of him. He cleared 16 feet, 8 3/4 inches and then threw the javelin 215 feet, 7 inches to move into third place and a spot on the medal stand.
Only the 1,500 meters stood between Fritz and an Olympic medal.
In an interview with the web site Decathlon2000.com, Fritz said a time of 4 minutes, 30 seconds in the 1,500 would be a great time for him. The athletes just ahead and just behind him in the standings were both strong 1,500-meter runners and those 16 vaults had inflicted heavy fatigue on his legs.
Fritz ran the 1,500 meters in 4:38.26 to score 691 points. That turned out to be 20 points too few for Fritz, who finished fourth overall.
“I don’t spend much time thinking about it,” Fritz said. “It was a portion of time in my life. It was fun and it was a great experience. I can always say that my best score ever came in the Olympics.”
Fritz scored 8,644 points. To put his performance in perspective, that score would have won Gold in the 1992 Olympics and would have won or medaled at every Olympic Games and World Championship since 1996.
Fritz wasn’t done with his international career after Atlanta.
In 1997, Fritz won the Kansas Relays decathlon (8,380 points), won the U.S. national championship (8,604 points) and finished fourth in the World Championships (8,463 points).
After his stellar track and field career concluded, Fritz returned to Kansas State as an assistant coach.
At K-State, Fritz guided more than 20 NCAA qualifiers, nine USA National qualifiers, seven Junior National qualifiers, one World University Games qualifiers and one World Junior qualifier. He has coached eight All-Americans who have earned 23 All-America certificates.
Fritz has been asked many times if he thinks about 1996 and coming so close to a medal.
“It was a wonderful time in my life, but I can use my time more wisely than worrying about 20 points,” Fritz said.
As for his two years at Hutchinson Community College, they were the launching pad for what Fritz went on to achieve.
How would Fritz rate his time at HCC in his life’s achievements?
“It’s way up there,” he said. “I never enjoyed basketball more than the two years when I was at Hutch. I honestly don’t think without Coach Farrar, I don’t achieve what I did.”
As far as putting “The Shot” in context, Fritz said it took him a while to fully understand the ramifications of what that moment meant to him, his team, his school and the Hutchinson community.
At that time, all he was thinking about was winning a really big basketball game.
“When, you are 18-, 19-, 20-years old, you don’t have a real grasp of history,” Fritz said. “You are just trying to muddle through and you don’t know what all this means to the people watching you. I was here for two years. The kids from Hutch understood better because they had grew up around it.
“Once you start seeing it over and over and over, then you realize what you have done.”