“This team is deep. When one person struggles, the others pick them up.”
That was the message head track and field coach Wes Kittley echoed to this year's Red Raider team – which he believes is the most talented squad he has ever coached – all season long. Justin Hall took that message to heart at this month's NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Hall, a long jumper from Blue Springs, Mo., has been looking forward to this opportunity since his freshman season. The junior got a taste of the national scene in 2017, when he qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships with a then-personal best jump of 25-feet 7½ inches at the NCAA West Preliminary. His men's team ranked outside the top-20 then, so it was much more disheartening when he missed the cut in 2018 with the Tech squad entering as the nation's second-ranked team and looking for the school's first-ever men's national title in any sport.
“Missing out on nationals was tough for me because I knew that I was more than capable of competing there,” he said.
Determined to make sure he was there to compete for points this year with his squad entering as the national favorite, Hall put together the best season of his career. For the first time, he jumped over 25-feet in six straight meets, including the incredible performance he turned in at nationals with a load of pressure on his shoulders. The pressure came from tough performances from fellow long jumpers Odaine Lewis and Charles Brown, who, despite having solid seasons and entering as top-four long jumpers, failed to place in the top-eight and score. Hall, however, was ready to prove Kittley right and pick them up when they had an off-meet.
The junior began on a strong note, jumping 26-feet even on his second attempt. With one jump left to solidify a spot in the finals, he made sure he'd have a place with a lifetime-best leap of 26-feet 5 inches. It is the first time he had ever jumped over eight meters (8.05m) without the assistance of wind. It tied the fifth-farthest jump in school history, and was good enough to place him fourth, score Tech five big points, and make him a First Team All-American for the first time in his career.
With 10 competitors recording jumps of over 25 ½ feet, the finals of the this year's long jump make it one of the most competitive ever at an NCAA Championship.
“Becoming a First Team All-American was a big goal of mine,” Hall said. “I was blessed enough to place top-four at one of the greatest NCAA long jump competitions in history. However, contributing points to my team was the best feeling of the whole meet.”
With his work done on Wednesday, Hall had a front row to seat to witness his teammates do their parts Friday to seal the first men's National Championship in school history.
“I was sitting in the stands watching Duke [Kicinski] throw the discus,” he said as he recalled the meet's winding moments. “We knew all he had to do was score and we would win, and he ended up winning the event. Coach [James] Thomas called my name from the stands behind me and said, 'We did it, it's over!' I felt overwhelming joy. That was one of the best feelings I've ever felt in my life.”
A national title meet comes not only at the end of a long season in the weight room and the track, but the classroom as well. Hall, a sports management major, is one of so many student-athletes in Tech's track and field program who successfully manages his schoolwork alongside his hard work at practices, workouts, and meets.
“Balancing school and athletics during the season is tough,” Hall said. “But with the help of our academics staff – and making sure I get ahead in my work at the start of the week – it is a lot more manageable.
“It's a great feeling to be a student-athlete here at Texas Tech. Academics is always the first responsibility, and graduating with a degree will always be the goal that goes along with having a great athletic career here at Tech."