Lauryn Hill only had one more bar to clear before her high school track career came to a close at Colo-NESCO.
The Royal senior placed in the top three of the Class 1A girls’ high jump at the state track meet in each of her first three seasons. She took third as a freshman, second as a sophomore and third again as a junior.
With last year’s 1A state champion Emma Atwood of Central Decatur moving on to graduation that left Hill and runner-up Shelby Conger of Montezuma as the favorites for this year’s state championship.
But on Friday Hill’s dreams of a state championship came crashing down. The Iowa Board of Education announced that the high school spring sports season in the state was cancelled due to COVID-19.
“It’s something I saw coming, but I didn’t realize how much it would bum me out until the news was released,” Hill said. “It really made me take a trip down memory lane to focus on all the opportunities I have been fortunate enough to experience through track and everything else at Colo-NESCO. Of course it also made me wonder what memories I am going to miss out on from the remainder of the season and school year.”
Hill took a liking to the high jump when she began track in junior high. Unlike a lot of newcomers to the event, she had no qualms with going full speed in her run-up toward the mat before springboarding over the bar.
“She is tenacious and fearless,” Colo-NESCO head girls’ track coach Josh Nessa said. “Many girls don’t reach their full potential in the high jump because they are timid and don’t attack. When many girls let up on their approach, Lauryn gains speed.”
Hill constantly worked with her older cousin Matthew Hill, a state qualifier in the boys’ high jump for Colo-NESCO, and junior high coach Kristine Brinkman to become a strong jumper.
“They helped me learn the basics and technique,” Hill said. “With their encouragement I believed in myself a lot more and started winning at meets, that’s when I gained my confidence.”
In high school the varsity high jump belonged to Hill.
“I’ve pretty much been the solo jumper on our team,” Hill said. “A couple girls have tried but never stuck with it a whole season.”
During practices Nessa had the girls lift to start practices three days a week and stretch to open the other two days. Hill warmed up with the team and did running workouts, went back to the gym to stretch again then did approach run-ups and some drills before going all out with her jumps.
She usually didn’t have anyone to jump with, though teammate McKenzie Niemeyer was always there for her.
“I would usually stay to watch her until she was done,” NIemeyer said. “There was hardly a time when we weren’t together during practice. I loved watching her jump and taking videos.”
The only thing that could occasionally slow Hill down during practices had four legs and liked to bark.
“During practices while running in town, whenever we would see a dog we would have to stop just to pet it,” Niemeyer said. “Dogs always come first!”
By her junior year Hill was ready to ascend to the top of the record books at Colo-NESCO.
She set the school high jump mark of five feet, five inches last April at Van Meter. A little over a week later she cleared 5-6 at the George Abel Hawkette Relays in Jewell.
“I have always been goal-oriented and from the beginning my goal was to set new records,” Hill said. “I always had the record board in the back of my mind, but I definitely did not picture getting the records and breaking them again.”
Hill qualified for the Drake Relays last year, placing seventh with a jump of 5-4.
With all of that momentum she appeared poised to win a state championship. But Hill suffered an ankle injury after Drake and never fully regained peak form, jumping 5-2 at state.
That motivated Hill all offseason.
“My main goal this season was to finally get a state title,” Hill said. “I’ve been working on it since freshman year and each year I was able to place in the top three and increase the height I jumped. After last season I was focused on consistently jumping close to my personal record and being able to peek at the state meet.”
But soon after practice got going the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Hill, like a lot of area athletes, remained hopeful that they would eventually get the chance to compete. Both the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union and Iowa High School Athletic Association did their best to delay the season as long as possible.
But on Friday the state determined the COVID-19 risk was too high to allow the season to proceed.
“I’ll be honest there were a couple of times I teared up today thinking that she didn’t get her last chance to become a champion,” Nessa said. “But she always acted like one, so deep down I know she could have done it. She is a state champ in my heart.”
Hill said she is eternally grateful for Nessa’s support.
“I would like to thank Coach Nessa for believing in me and always encouraging me to be my best both on and off the track,” Hill said. “I would also like to thank all of my coaches for teaching me to be mentally and physically tough. I will carry the lessons I learned with me forever. I would also like to thank my family and friends for being the best supporters throughout my career.”
Even though her dream of a title ended up being a casualty of COVID-19, Hill still has a lot going for her. She will be continuing her track career in college at Northwest Missouri State.
“It is extremely reassuring and comforting to know that I have four more years to compete,” Hill said. “Knowing that has also helped me take this news better, even though I will never get my senior high school season back. I am looking forward to competing at the collegiate level and seeing how much I can improve over the next four years. I am excited to meet my new teammates and create new memories that will last a lifetime.”