Entering the season, Nikki McNorton had not high jumped in three years. Jeff Smith wasn't even eligible for eight months of his college career.
But coming up Friday-Sunday, the juniors will represent Tarleton State at the NCAA Division II Track & Field Outdoor Championships at Colorado State-Pueblo.
Smith punched his automatic qualifying ticket with a season-best and school-record 400 meter hurdle time of 51.82 seconds at the Lone Star Conference meet, while McNorton waited until the Last Chance Relays at Abilene Christian to clear the automatic qualifying height - it was 5 feet, 8.75 inches and she cleared 5-10.75 - in the women's high jump. McNorton is tied for the second best height in the nation, just a half inch from first. Smith has the seventh fastest hurdle time.
Tarleton head coach Pat Ponder has had years where he's taken just one athlete to nationals and he's had years he's taken upwards of 15, he says. His experience left him unsurprised at the accomplishments of his current nationals-bound competitors.
"I'm not surprised a bit because I've known they both have the ability to compete at this level," said Ponder. "They have the talent and they are dedicated. They both work hard. When you combine those things, it's something special. It's rewarding as a coach when talented young people work so hard and you get to see it pay off.
"In the working world, we work and we work and we always look forward to pay day," he added. "Jeff and Nikki have put in the work, and when we leave for Pueblo, it will be pay day for them."
Smith and McNorton were motivating each other to excel with a challenge between them to see who could hit an auto-qualifying mark first.
"She had been hitting the provo (provisional qualifying mark) every week it seemed, and I was afraid she was going to beat me to the auto," Smith said. "But I got that blue check mark first."
Of course, he was glad to know he would have some company on the nationals trip.
"I was excited for Nikki. She waited until the end, but when she got it, she really got it."
McNorton has been surprised by the whole experience.
"I'm shocked by it all," she said. "I didn't high jump (in junior college), so it had been three years since I jumped in high school," said the Houston native. "I just keep surprising myself every week."
One thing McNorton is always surprised by is the height she's jumped. That's because she always sees the bar being lower than it truly is.
"I have to envision it at a lower height, like 5-6 every time," she said with a laugh. "If I let myself look up there and see the bar at 5-10, I'll never get it."
Ponder believes a 6-0 jump is in McNorton's future.
"She can clear six foot, I know she can," he said. "Remember, she's just gotten back into it and she still has another year. She certainly has the talent to jump over six foot."
Smith doesn't claim to be surprised by his achievements, but the Mineral Wells product does admit he took the long route to reach this point in his career.
"I had a hard time transitioning from high school, and wasn't even eligible for eight months," he said. "I had to work hard just to get back on the team."
Transitioning to the 400 hurdles - not an event in Texas high school track - was also difficult.
"I ran the 110 hurdles, the 300 hurdles and the mile relay (4x400) in high school, but it wasn't easy with those extra hurdles out there," he said. "It took a lot of time and work. Nothing was easy about it."
But Smith figured it out, both in the classroom and on the track.
"I got a 3.0 this semester," he said. "I'm as proud of that as anything on the track."
That's saying something, because on the track, Smith finished first at the David Noble Relays at Angelo State and was second at Division I Texas-Arlington's Bobby Lane Invitational. He was also third at the Texas Relays, one of the largest, most prestigious track events in the country, and third at the Texas Tech Open.
McNorton's year has been just as impressive, even more so considering she spent the fall earning all-conference honors for the Tarleton volleyball team.
"It's my No. 2 sport," McNorton said of track and field. "I do volleyball first, and I'm still doing volleyball workouts during track season."
But that hasn't stopped her. In fact, the results show it hasn't even slowed her down. McNorton has won six events including the Texas Tech Open.
There are still highlights to be added, including the journey to nationals itself.
"We're driving and I can't wait," said Ponder. "We're going through New Mexico then up to Colorado, and I'm hoping to take them places like the Air Force Academy and the Olympic Training Center. We have a kid from Houston and one from Mineral Wells. Hopefully we can show them some of the world outside Tarleton and outside Texas."
But as scenic as the drive and as exciting as the side stops prove to be, nothing, Smith says, will compare to backing into the blocks at nationals.
"This is where I've always wanted to be, it's what I've been working for," Smith said. "I can't wait to get there and take it all in."
McNorton says the only thing she expects is more surprises.
"I have no idea what to expect," she said. "It's been a year full of surprises and I'm sure this will be a surprise, too."
Their events may differ, but the goal is the same.
"We're going to have fun and enjoy it, but we can't be satisfied," Smith said. "We're trying to come back as All-Americans for Tarleton."
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