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Small town jumpers reach new heights

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  • Clockwise from top left: West Elk's Devin Loudermilk, Sterling's Tyus Wilson, St. John's-Beloit/Tipton's Brady Palen, and Burlingame's Matthew Heckman are all big-time college high jumpers from small-town Kansas. (Photos: Elicia Castillo, Joey Bahr, Larry Staton, Joey Bahr)
    Clockwise from top left: West Elk's Devin Loudermilk, Sterling's Tyus Wilson, St. John's-Beloit/Tipton's Brady Palen, and Burlingame's Matthew Heckman are all big-time college high jumpers from small-town Kansas. (Photos: Elicia Castillo, Joey Bahr, Larry Staton, Joey Bahr)

Special to Kansas Pregame

Say “Hey!” to Devin the Dominator, Master Matthew, Brady Bunch Kid and the Sterling Stud. 

Together they literally raised the bar for high jumpers across the Midwest at NCAA conference track and field championships one week ago.

And all four jumping jack-in-the-box aficionados hail from Kansas small towns.

Devin Loudermilk, a West Elk Patriot graduate from Howard in southeast Kansas and now at KU, leaped his way to the Big XII Conference Indoor Track Championships in Austin, Texas one week ago.

About the same time at the B1G Indoor Championships in Geneva, Ohio at the SPIRE Institute, Nebraska Cornhusker great Tyus Wilson, a Sterling Black Bear product from central Kansas, soared to winning heights to earn his gold medal. Only to be reminded afterward by his Dad who was the reason for his success.

Brady Palen, a senior at Wichita State from Beloit, reigned supreme at the American Athletic Conference Indoor meet at Birmingham, Ala. It was a double-edged sword feeling, though for the former St. John’s-Beloit/Tipton standout. He won his first conference indoor championship, but he missed qualifying for nationals by less than an inch.

And locally at the MIAA Indoor Championships at Washburn, the Pride of Burlingame High, Matthew Heckman of Washburn leaped to a personal best and second-place finish. The Ichabod freshman with his next PR will carve his own place on the Mount Rushmore of 7-foot high jumpers.

Three conference championships and a runner-up for another. A definite Win-Win-Win-Win for future athletes from rural Kansas who aspire to be just like one of these greats. 

“It’s cool seeing other guys like that doing amazing things, especially coming from smaller towns,” Heckman said. “It kinda gives me confidence knowing that if they can do it, I can also.”

“I think it’s great that three (other) high jumpers from Kansas are showing out on the big stage,” Loudermilk said. “It really puts into perspective that it doesn’t matter how big of a town you come from, anyone can be successful if you put in the work.”

“It is definitely rewarding to win the conference meet for the first time,” Palen said. “I’ve received second five times at the AAC Championship and it feels good to finally have a gold. I’ve been really appreciative of all of the congratulations I have received, but not getting to the national level this year is definitely a let down and often the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions the win.”

“Tyus is a small reason on why I kept jumping,” former Nebraska-Kearney jumper and Plainville High Cardinal grad Madden Staab said. “I got to compete against him my sophomore year when he jumped in the same regional as me. I then watched him and Loudermilk (at State Outdoor). But it means a lot and it’s very inspiring seeing other Kansas kids do big things at that level.”

Wilson said it goes to show how athletes can come from all over. 

“We’ve all been gifted in different ways, so don’t shoot down your dream or someone else’s just because it’s unique or rare,” Wilson said. “The most important thing is to find that ‘why’. Why are you doing this sport? Why do you want to do X, Y, Z? I think that ‘why’ produces motivation that is necessary to continue competing hard and chasing the next level when things start getting difficult. Competition at that level from small town kids across those conferences is really unique and special. Hopefully it will continue, but I think this is an incredible moment in the history of Kansas track and field.”

Devin Loudermilk 
Throughout the competition, the KU junior knew first attempt clearances would put pressure on the competition.

“As I made 7-foot-5 first try, I still felt as though I needed more, but was very confident about getting the win because I had no prior misses,” said Loudermilk, the conference’s Men’s Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Week two weeks ago.

As he approached the high jump pit on his winning jump, Loudermilk remained confident.

“I knew that it would put a lot of pressure on the Texas Tech jumper, but I never really felt like it was a winning jump just so I could stay in the moment and not take my foot off the brakes.”

Texas Tech’s Omamuyovwi Erhire finished second with a clearance of 7-3.75.

“It felt great because the year prior I had come in second and that was a feeling I never wanted to feel again,” the proud Rock Chalk Jayhawk noted.

“The funny yet amazing story he always tells me is that he got into high jumping because of watching me in high school,” Shawnee Heights grad and former Nebraska jumper Mikey Hoffer said. “Makes me feel incredibly proud that I get to associate myself with only the beginning of his success.”

It marked Loudermilk’s third indoor title of the season as he previously won the Black and Gold Invitational in Ames, Iowa, and Husker Invitational in Nebraska. 

The 6-foot-2, 165-pound Dominator, who has cleared the 7-foot mark in every indoor meet in 2024, will compete in the NCAA National Indoor Championships March 8-9 in Boston.

“I give the glory to God,” he said.

“Devin jumping 7-foot-5 this weekend was crazy,” Wilson noted. “He has the talent and work ethic that will keep taking him to higher heights. I’m extremely happy for him.”

Matthew Heckman 
Psalms 27: 1-2 and Psalms 23:4. One verse is inscribed on one of his jumping shoes, the other verse on his other shoe.

“I say the second verse in my head before every single jump,” Heckman said.

He certainly fears no evil when he sets sail towards the Heavens and ascends over the high jump bar which was set at 6-11 3/4 at MIAA.

“It just felt very natural for the first time in awhile,” said Heckman, who just nine months ago won 1A State Outdoor as a Burlingame Bearcat. “The men’s 5k was going on at the moment and it was near the end and everyone was cheering for the 5k because it was getting intense. I just imagined that they were all cheering for me and helped me boost my adrenaline.”

As he began his ascension, Heckman said everything just kind of went blank.

“I just jumped and then when I got over the bar I looked at it in disbelief,” the 6-foot-3, 170-pounder said. “When I got up I had noticed I hit the bar and I definitely thought it was gonna come down. When it stayed up there, I was visibly shocked but extremely excited also.”

Heckman’s confidence wasn’t as high a few weeks ago.

“I was still just trying to break my old high school habits and learn the right techniques,” he said. “It was frustrating, but each meet I’m constantly getting better.”

“I have not met Heckman, but it is always great to see Kansas boys at the top putting us on the map,” Hoffer said. “Jumping those heights is incredible and only the beginning of an incredible ride.”

Now he prepares for the NCAA Division II national indoor soon at Pittsburg State.

“This past year has definitely been interesting, winning state in high school,” Heckman said. “A few months of summer go by and I am immediately practicing in college and having to get a completely new approach and learn all the basics of high jump again. It’s definitely a bit hard, but it definitely has helped me improve.

“But I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I’m at right now if it weren’t for God.”

Brady Palen
“Going into the conference meet I noticed the guy who was ranked above me had some inconsistent performances,” Palen said. “I knew that could be an attribute but also a weakness to his competitive effort. I really can’t recall anything special about my winning jump at conference because I was mainly focused on the qualifying mark I needed to get to nationals with.”

He was stoked after he cleared 2.18 meters (7-foot-1 3/4) on his third attempt.

“I knew I would have three more shots at qualifying. Unfortunately I didn’t make them. But it was great to have a season best at the conference meet,” Palen said.

Qualifying for nationals at Boston next week required a 7-foot-2 1/2 jump. 

“It was tough because I knew how bad he wanted to qualify for indoor championships after getting seventh last year and earning first team all American status,” his Dad, Byron said. 

“I know one of his goals going to WSU was to win an AAC championship so he accomplished that, but he knew he didn’t qualify for indoors,” Byron continued.

“We just reiterated how great of a year he had even though he didn’t qualify,” Palen 1.0 said. “That doesn’t take away how proud we are of him and the year he had and not many small town kids can win a D1 Championship.”

“I had mixed emotions on the podium and I wasn’t really sure how to react,” Brady said. “But I chose to be thankful for the win I have never received and focus on the good from that day.”

Palen 2.0 graduated in three years with a finance degree and after this semester he’ll be over halfway done with his MBA concentrated in finance. His GPA is 3.53.

Palen was named the AAC Men’s Indoor Field Most Outstanding Performance at the conference indoor.

“I am super grateful for the jumping ability God gave me,” Palen said. “While jumping is something I have always loved to do, it was by His design that I’m where I am today.”

Tyus Wilson 
“My winning jump was at 7-foot-3 or 2.21 (meters) which would equal my all-time PR and punch my ticket for NCAA Indoor Nationals,” said the 6-foot-8 Wilson. “With all this in the back of my mind, I knew I couldn't change my mentality. I had to just treat it like it was any other bar in competition and rely on what I had been working on in practice.”

The 6-foot-8, 190-pounder missed his first attempt, but the Sterling Stud felt confident coming off the mat to take his second attempt. 

“When I ran up for my second attempt, I knew I had given myself a chance. I took off and the rest is history,” the No. 1-ranked prep high jumper in the nation in 2020 and 2021 said.

“I opened up at 6-foot-10 or 2.09 meters and the bar progressed by three centimeters until I went out at 2.24 (7-4 1/4),” Wilson said. “The #2 jump was by Kam Garrett from Illinois. He also jumped 7-3, but I had less misses up until that height. I think that speaks to the urgency of staying ‘clean’ throughout a high jump competition. Those early misses can come back to haunt you.”

His winning jump felt good, he said. 

“But I knew that Kam wasn't just going to fall over and surrender after that jump,” Wilson said. “He is a good competitor, so I knew that I would have to continue in my rhythm as I attempted 2.24.”

Wilson was seen clutching his fists and doing his best Hulk Hogan impersonation after his 7-3 clearance. 

“I was ecstatic. I just wanted to yell at the top of my lungs with excitement,” Wilson said. “Not even 30 seconds later, though, Kam made 7-3 as well so I had to regroup to focus on the next bar.”

As the Sterling Stud stood on the podium, excitement raced through his Big Red veins in a moment when There’s no place like Nebraska, his school’s fight song. His most memorable moment, though, came with his Dad moments before he received his Gold medal on the podium.

“He really reminded me what this sport is truly about,” Wilson 2.0, who admitted some tears were surfacing, said. “He told me that neither the medal, the first place, nor the PR defines me as a person. He recited Ephesians 1:12 which says that we are to do everything, ‘To the praise of His (God's) glory.…..’ That is the best reminder of all.”

Wilson 2.0 concluded.

“In a couple days, the hype of winning will wear off,” he said. “In a few years I will be done jumping. I can't take the medal or anything else with me when I die, so I know that the most important thing is how I live and how I honor God through my attitude and effort. All glory goes to Him.”