East Tennessee State long jumper Tyler Stepp promised his father he’d shave off his scruffy beard if he made the field for the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships.
Stepp is indeed in Eugene, Ore., this week, and so is his beard.
“It’s kind of been an ongoing thing with my team,” the junior from Jefferson City said Tuesday. “I’m actually an all-business kind of guy, clean cut, and have never really done a beard before. I kind of had one coming along when my success in the long jump started, and everybody said I should keep it going.
“I told my dad I’d shave my face if I made it to nationals, but not before I jump. The beard has been with me all this way, and it’s going to finish with me here.”
Stepp is among six ETSU athletes who made the NCAAs this spring.
Triple jumper Jason Johnson also qualified, along with the women’s 4x100 relay team of Courtney Kinlaw, Keturah Williams, Karissa Bertling and Emani Harrison. The competition gets started today at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus.
“It’s an exciting week, and hopefully down the road we’ll get more people qualified for nationals,” said George Watts, ETSU’s first-year director of track and field. “We really have three great stories with this bunch.”
With or without the beard, Stepp was going to stand out among the 24 long jumpers who qualified for nationals. He’s 6-foot-5, which is a tall projectile by any track and field standards.
“There are not a whole lot of guys as tall as I am,” he said. “Typically, tall guys don’t have a whole lot of speed, but I’ve been blessed with that. It’s important, though, to have a light frame, so I’ve lost quite a bit of weight since first semester. I’ve gone from 200 pounds to about 185, and my body feels good.”
Stepp transferred in from Tennessee not long before Watts was hired last spring after 26 years as a UT assistant. He was a heralded high jumper in high school at Jefferson County, but changed course at ETSU under the direction of new jumps coach DJ Johnston.
When Stepp went out and won the Atlantic Sun Conference indoor meet in January with a leap of over 24 feet, missing out on an NCAA qualifying mark by less than two inches, everyone took notice.
“It opened my eyes and the coaches’,” he said. “We said maybe we should look at this more closely. There really seemed to be some potential there.”
Now he’s suddenly among the elite long jumpers in the country.
Stepp finished second at the East Regional in Greensboro, N.C., two weeks ago with a leap of 25 feet, 6 inches. That left him in pretty good company this week.
“I’m coming into this meet ranked sixth,” he said. “The longest jump in the country is only four or five inches more than what I’ve jumped. I’ve been improving throughout the season, getting better every day, so who knows? I think I can compete with these guys.”
Nine jumpers will make the finals on Thursday, and the top eight will be named All-America. Stepp could be one of those.
“He’s just so consistent, and confident without being cocky,” said Watts. “He has goals and goes after them. I don’t know what can happen this week, but next year he could really take off.”
For Johnson, the triple jumper, this weekend will cap an ETSU career that has come on strong at the end.
The senior from Philadelphia didn’t have the look of a national qualifier for the longest time. But he jumped 50-06.25 feet at the regional to finish ninth and make the field.
Johnson also hit the B standard for the USA Track and Field trials and has a chance to make the national team later this summer.
“His first three years had been up and down,” said Watts. “He struggled even indoors trying to adjust to coach Johnston, not in a negative way but just going from one coach to another and a different way of training.
“We kept encouraging him to stick with it and something good will happen, and he started getting very consistent. At the regionals, he had five jumps over 50 feet and only scratched once. I think he’s in the same boat as Tyler this week: all it takes is one jump to get in the finals.”
Meanwhile, the ETSU relay team has virtually come from nowhere to compete in Eugene.
The women were collectively ranked last out of 24 teams at the Greensboro regional and needed some luck just to get in the field. They responded with a 10th-place finish, clocking a school-record 44.75.
“Three teams had to scratch out for them to get in,” said Watts. “They ran in lane eight and had nothing to lose. They saved their best for last, so you can never say never.
“The great thing about track and field is that times and distances don’t lie.”
The 4x100 preliminaries will be run today, with the finals set for Saturday afternoon.
All things considered, it’s been a productive start at ETSU for Watts, who succeeded the legendary Dave Walker. He has a grand vision on what the future might hold for the program.
“The main thing we’ve stressed all season long is to think more about being a national-level team,” said Watts, who helped coach two outdoor national championship teams and another indoors at UT. “Not that we don’t want to win conference championships, because we do. But we people to think about East Tennessee State on a national level.
“The kids have adjusted well to my craziness, and we have to keep recruiting immediate-impact people. We made some great strides with our program this first year.”