Ja’Mari Ward was hoping to earn some first-place medals in an AAU national qualifier last weekend at University City High School, but the Cahokia freshman got more than he bargained for.
Ward, 14, capped the three-day meet on Sunday by setting a national age group record of 22 feet, 11 inches in the long jump.
“I didn’t know what the record was, but my coach (Leroy Millsap) said I could break it,” said Ward, whose best previous jump was 21-11 in a middle school state qualifier. “I went 22-9 on my first jump and 22-11 on my second, and then I stopped.
“I hadn’t been working on the long jump as much as I used to, so I didn’t think I would go that far. When I found out what I had jumped and found out I had broken the record, I didn’t know what to say.”
Ward also won the triple jump (45-3) and the high jump (5-4) and placed second in the 400-meter run (52.95).
“I’ve cleared 6 feet in the high jump, but I couldn’t do it Sunday because I had to run the 400,” Ward said. “The long jump is my best event, but I didn’t do as well as I wanted in the 400.”
Track is a family affair for Ward, the son of Joe and Rhonda Ward of Cahokia. His brother, LaDerrick, was the Class 2A state champion in the long jump as a sophomore in 2009 and placed second in the triple jump as a senior in 2011. He recently completed his freshman season at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he broke the outdoor school record in the long jump.
Another brother, Lyjerrick, competed for Cahokia in the 800. He will be a junior at Eastern Illinois University but is not on the track team.
“Lyjerrick was more of a distance runner, while Ja’Mari and LaDerrick are more jumpers, although they’re good runners also,” Joe Ward said. “Ja’Mari has grown a little faster, and that’s made a difference.”
Ward, who was on the track team at Wirth Middle School in Cahokia, has been competing in the sport for only two years.
“My brothers have been a big help by giving me advice and helping to coach me,” Ward said. “They made me as good as I am now.”
Getting instruction from Millsap, who has guided Cahokia High School to state titles in 2007, 2011 and 2012, has been another plus for Ward.
“This is my second year working with coach Millsap, and I’ve already learned more from him than I thought I was going to,” Ward said.
The next challenge for Ward is AAU nationals, July 27 to Aug. 4 in Houston.
“I’m going to try to win every event that I’m in, and I feel I can do it,” Ward said.
While Ward shocked himself by jumping 22-11, Millsap wasn’t nearly as surprised.
“On Friday he broke the triple jump record, but they said you can’t do that at this meet,” Millsap said. “The next morning a kid broke a national record in the 400, and they did count it — Ja’Mari was a little ticked off about that. I knew he was going to come out strong on Sunday.
“Last year he set an age group record (in the long jump), but he couldn’t go to nationals because he had to attend a family function. He’s a great kid who has a good GPA (grade point average) at school.
“He’s also a great 400 runner, and I think he’s in the top three there as well. This area has produced a couple (track and field) Olympians in Jackie (Joyner-Kersee) and Dawn (Harper), and I think Ja’Mari might be the next one.”