The contest of high jump is not generally considered a sport of strategy and thinking. In general it is a combination of technique, athleticism and speed, and the guy who jumps highest comes out on top.
On Saturday, June 2 at Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium in Columbus, the talented field of high jumpers in the Div. I competition had been whittled down to just three competitors, one of those being Wooster dynamo Lonnie Harper.
After Dublin Coffman’s Derek Van Vierah bowed out at 6-07, only Harper, Miamisburg’s Jason Hubbard and Etaijen ‘et’ Easter were left to battle for the title.
That was when Wooster jump coach Brian Questel decided to bring strategy right smack-dab into the middle of the jump-fest.
Questel huddled with Harper off to the side of the pit as the jump crew adjusted the bar to 6-08, a height Harper had cleared earlier this season.
All throughout the competition Harper had jumped first, but as the trio prepared to go to 6-08, Harper watched as Hubbard took to the pit and prepared to jump.
Questel had gone over the numbers, and he and Harper agreed to pass at 6-08 and let the other two competitors take their best shot at that height.
“It was a calculated risk that wasn’t really a risk,” Questel said. “At worst Lonnie was going to get third place at that point, and this was going to put all the pressure on the other two jumpers. Everyone was getting tired, and it was hot, and they had to make three jumps that Lonnie didn’t have to make, so it was saving his strength.”
Easter missed at the height on his three jumps while Hubbard came through with an electrifying leap on his final attempt.
That left two jumpers at 6-09, and Harper had a shot at a title.
This time it was Hubbard who passed, so basically if Harper could clear 6-09, chances were very good that he would walk away the champion.
After a pair of solid but unsuccessful attempts, Harper lined up for his final attempt, sped to the bar and soared skyward. The jump was strong and clean, but he narrowly clipped it on his descent, the bar wobbling and edging off the standard.
His pursuit for a title was over for this year, but the talented junior was elated about his trek to Columbus.
“This feels great,” Harper said. “This is my first time to make it to state. It’s pretty amazing.”
As for dealing with the excruciating pressure he faced, Harper said he has idolized Los Angeles Laker great Koby Bryant as an athlete because of his ability to push aside the pressure and focus on the here and now.
Having already cleared 6-08 earlier this season, Harper was certain he had what it takes to go 6-09. He came within an eyelash of having that come true, but he left knowing he had done everything possible to make it happen.
“If I would have been chin-to-chest just a fraction of a second faster, I would have made it,” Harper said, knowing his jump was really, really good. “But I feel like I gave it my all, and I will have next year to work hard to get back down here and try to win it all. I have no regrets.”
Questel said he couldn’t ask for more from Harper, and as far as coaching up an athlete, he couldn’t ask for any better pupil to coach, especially one that didn’t even start to high jump until last season as a sophomore.
“He’s a coach’s dream,” Questel said of Harper. “He is absolutely one of the most coachable kids you could ask for. The growth he has shown in understanding the event has been remarkable, and the credit is his.”
Questel said Harper was struggling earlier this year but never gave up on himself and never got down. He only continued to work at his trade to improve. That helped him pave his way to state.
“”What he has done over the past three weeks has been incredible,” Questel said. “That’s his willingness to take advice and to work hard. That is the tremendous thing about Lonnie.”
What makes his performance even more impressive is that Harper is a smaller athlete in a long and lean man’s contest.
With the bar closing in on 1 foot over his head, seeing Harper continue to sky over the bar can be intimidating for the competition.
“Above all you have to first believe in your own mind that you are going to make it,” Harper said of clearing heights far over his head. “I imagine myself going over before I even jump. You have to have that belief in yourself.”
He believed and imagined himself all the way to the point where he is knocking on the door to a state championship, and that is all any athlete could ask for.