Leader Blues

Thursday, February 21, 2008

SPORTS >>One last chance to shine

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

The state indoor meet in Fayetteville every February marks the beginning of high school track and field season in Arkansas.
This year, it will mark another beginning: The beginning of the end of one of the most dominant high school track careers this state has ever witnessed.

Searcy’s Whitney Jones is expected to cart home another parcel of hardware this weekend when she competes in the long jump, the triple jump, the 60 meters, the 200 meters and the 400 meters.

It’s nearly impossible to imagine the Lady Lion senior not winning the long jump — which has emerged this year as her best event — or the triple jump or the 60 or 200 meters. The 400 meters, one of her best events as a sophomore, may be the only one in doubt this weekend after injuries as a junior limited her effectiveness in that race last year.

Yet, here’s something to deflate the spirits of Jones’ closest competitors, who are all outstanding athletes in their own rights, but who no doubt have some idea how Phil Mickelson feels to have come along in the Tiger Woods era: Jones posted a time so low in the 400 meters that it surprised even her.

“I really don’t care for [the 400], but I think it’s my strongest event,” says Jones, who won the 400 at the Arkansas Track Coaches Association indoor meet at Fayetteville two weeks ago with a time of 58 seconds.
In other words, better make even more room in the trophy case.

You could fill up an entire article about Whitney Jones just listing her achievements: two-time defending heptathlon champion, triple jump All-American, triple jump state record holder, winner of four events at both the Meet of Champs and the 6A state meet last year, winner of two Meet of Champs events as a sophomore.

Or you could listen to Charlie Carroll, the Searcy track coach who has coached Jones since she was a seventh-grader.

“She’s the best athlete I’ve ever had, no question about that,” says Carroll, who has been at the school 16 years. “And not only is she the best athlete; she’s so pleasant to be around. Sometimes you get athletes as good as her that are prima donnas, that are hard to be around or are temperamental. She’s not like that.”

In fact, Carroll says, Jones has remained pretty much the same person she was when she was 12 years old and discovering her talents.

Always mature, he says, always serious and focused and studious and modest.

“She has always carried herself well,” he says. “Ten, 20 years from now, it’s going to be the same. It will. There are a handful of people like her.”

Fewer than that when you add her talent into the mix.

Jones made it official two weeks ago when she signed to run track with the University of Arkansas. She chose the Razorbacks over Miami, Ole Miss, Alabama and Kansas State.

“I had a checklist,” Jones says of her decision. “Arkansas was the only school with a masters program in sports training; it was close to home so my family can come and watch; I know the pastor of a church up there so I already have a church family and my dad’s brother lives up there so I have family.”

And, she adds, she has faith that Arkansas track coach Rolando Greene can help her reach her goals, one of which is to run professionally.

Carroll figures that once she gets to UA, and begins to narrow her events, the sky is the limit.

“What’s going to help her is when she and her coach zero in on one or two things that he sees in her and that she really likes doing, she’ll take off,” says Carroll, who considers the long jump and the 200 meters her two best events.

“I mean, she’s the best in state at the 100. But she just looks so pretty in the 200. When she turns that curve, she’s just so strong. That final 60 meters or so, she just looks pretty running.”

So, with her college chosen and with a senior season in which, barring the emergence of another prodigy, Jones will likely go unchallenged again, how can she stay motivated?

That could be her toughest obstacle, and she’s pretty honest about it.

“I’m really not that motivated for some reason,” she says, a fact she insists her father and AAU coach Wilfred Jones appears to understand.

But perhaps to motivate his daughter, Wilfred warned her there could always be another version of herself, exploding unexpected on the scene to blow everyone away. That wouldn’t be such a bad thing, Jones says.

“I’m going to be ready for whoever comes out,” she says. “I hope there’s competition. Maybe there’d be more motivation. I’m sure I’d improve if I had more competition.”

Two years ago, when Jones was just coming on the high school scene, when she was the challenger and not the challenged, she showed just how big a part motivation can play.

At the 2006 state meet, she went head to head with Camden Fairview’s Karen Thomas in the triple-jump competition.
Each kept outdoing the other until Jones emerged with the title and a new state record at 39 feet, ¼ inch.

Last year, with no Thomas and no one else to push her, Jones tried to motivate herself by shooting for state records in her five events. But a nagging case of tendonitis in her knee hampered her — thought not enough to keep her from winning the long jump, triple jump, 100 meters and 200 meters in both the state meet and the Meet of Champs — and she failed to set any records.

This year, fully recovered from the injury, she claims she is not focusing on breaking records.

Carroll has his doubts about that.

“She may say that, but in real life, she competes against herself,” he said. “She has since she was a little girl because she out-runs and out-jumps everybody. This year, I guarantee you, she’s going to put one last pop on everybody.

“She going to say, ‘See you all, catch this stuff.’ I don’t care what she says. Inside her, there’s too much firepower.”

In late May, Jones will go for an unprecedented third-consecutive heptathlon title. The soft-spoken senior finally betrays that inner firepower her coach knows is always lurking

“I’m looking forward to winning the hep again,” she says with a laugh. “No one’s ever won it three times.”