HARRISONBURG — The first time Eastern Mennonite University high jumper Jordan King went up for a very modest 5-foot-8 leap at a meet in 2012, he knocked the bar off in embarrassing fashion.
Two years later, the 6-foot-5 uber-athletic jumper laughs when asked what he and teammates Quentin Moore and Drew Vrolijk could do to a bar set at that height now.
“Sometimes, the opening height will be 5-6 [at meets] and all three of us will do scissor kicks in the opening jump,” King, now a senior, said with a laugh. “Sometimes, I feel kind of bad about it.”
Evidently, the whole jumping thing came pretty easy for King, a basketball-player-turned-track-star for the Royals the past two seasons. Despite having no high jumping experience before last year, King has become the best in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference, winning the indoor and outdoor championships in 2013 and 2014.
At last weekend’s ODAC championships in Salem, King, Moore and Vrolijk finished 1-2-3 in the high jump, scoring 24 of EMU’s 35 total team points on the men’s side.
“They were big points scorers, and having those folks there that you can rely on, they’re all kind of focused on that event,” EMU track coach Jason Leskowicz said.
EMU’s three jumpers – each of whom played basketball in high school – all have a shot at qualifying for the NCAA Division III meet beginning May 22 in Delaware, Ohio. King, who set an EMU record with a jump of 6 feet, 8.25 inches at the ODAC meet, appears to be a lock to qualify – he’s ranked No. 14 in D-3. Moore jumped 6-7.5, and Vrolijk jumped 6-3.25 at the conference championships.
Vrolijk, a sophomore and Eastern Mennonite High School graduate, was just a 5-10 jumper in high school. Moore, a junior from Richmond who stars on the EMU men’s volleyball team, practiced only twice before the ODAC meet after not jumping for three years.
How rare is this for the Royals? Two years ago, they did not have a jumper finish in the top 12 at the ODAC championships. That they now have a nationally ranked high jumper is a remarkable turnaround – one they can attribute to a little luck and a lot of good coaching.
College track-and-field lends itself to two-sport athletes, typically football players who sprint for the indoor and outdoor teams during the offseason. At the Division III level, well-rounded athletes such as King can drop one sport and pick up another and have success. In King’s case, an elite jumper fell into EMU’s lap.
“You definitely find some diamonds in the rough,” Leskowicz said.
King took an unconventional path to track-and-field stardom. He started as a basketball player at Hesston (Junior) College in Kansas for former EMU player Dustin Galyon. King was a rotation swingman at Hesston before transferring to EMU for his junior season, where he gave basketball a try for coach Kirby Dean. After a few weeks of practice, King said, he felt he would not get enough minutes to justify the time and effort.
It didn’t take long for the track coaches to snatch up King, who said he was unsure about track at first, but was looking for an excuse to stay in shape.
“[Assistant coach Britten Olinger] just kind of emailed me and said we hear you can jump,” said King, who grew up in Dalton, Ohio, and plans to go into marketing after college.
Leskowicz wasted no time testing out his new toy, making King jump on his first day of practice with a totally out-of-whack technique. The biggest obstacle, Leskowicz said, was fixing King’s jumping style. To simplify the process, Leskowicz used basketball terminology with King, although the two leaping styles differ greatly.
“The approach in high jump is kind of like a layup,” King explained. “In basketball, you’re also expecting contact, so you’re trying to stay low. In high jump, it’s about staying upright and being in rhythm when you take off.”
Once in the air, King had to adjust where his body went. In hoops, getting vertical is key; in high jumping, the entire body must get over the bar, a horizontal path. Leskowicz had to change King’s thinking.
“In basketball, you’re going straight up for a point,” said Leskowicz, who was a high jumper during his college days at Appalachian State. “In high jump, you’ve got to carry your body’s momentum over that bar into the mat. A lot of times you’ll see guys get a lot of hop and they’ll jump really high over the bar, but then they’ll fall on top of the bar. That was an issue for Jordan. He would knock the bar off at 6-4, but he had the height to clear 6-10, but he didn’t have that momentum because he had that basketball mentality.”
King said he thinks he needs to be in the 6-9 range to be competitive at nationals. Getting there was the goal before the season. Now…
“Now that that’s a reality I’m going to work toward winning,” King said. “If I put everything together, I do have a shot at winning.”
In 2013, then-senior Nathan Davis of Heidelberg jumped 6-11.5 to win the Division III championship.