By Luke Severt
For the Troy Daily News
STARKVILLE, Miss. — By the end of his final season as a Trojan, Stephen Jones was a veteran of the OHSAA State Track and Field Championships.
Two years later, he has the chance to become familiar with a new level of competition — the NCAA National Championships.
A 2016 Troy High School graduate, Jones was a star for the Trojans in his four years running for the team. In those four years, the team won three Greater Western Ohio Conference North Division championships.
Jones’ specialty in high school was the 3,200-meter run, an event that he dominated in winning three GWOC North meets, breaking the meet record in his junior season. He would break that mark again his senior season, and his record still stands today.
He was a three-time participant in event at the state meet, first placing 11th as the only sophomore in the field. He returned to the meet in his junior season and was on pace to make it onto the podium, but he was tripped by another competitor and suffered a fall that cost him his positioning, finishing 13th. He gained redemption the next year, however, and capped off an historic senior season with a third-place finish while breaking the school record and earning GWOC North Athlete of the Year and All-Ohio honors.
“Troy track and field has produced many good athletes over the years in every event area that have gone on to compete at the college level,” Jones said. “For me personally, the guidance and coaching from Bob Campbell and Kevin Alexander were what really shaped me as a runner and person. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here pursuing my dream.”
After a stellar high school career, Jones became a highly touted recruit and decided to continue running for Mississippi State University in Starkville, Mississippi.
“There are a lot of places out there that call themselves a family, but Mississippi State really is one,” Jones said. “The people I’ve met here and the experiences I’ve had due to being here have given me a life I couldn’t have dreamed of.”
One of the top collegiate track and field programs in the country, the Bulldogs have produced 10 national champions in their storied history and are currently the 19th ranked team in the NCAA. They are coached by former Bulldogs track and field captain Steve Dudley, who has coached eight national champions in his 17 years at Mississippi State, but Jones accredits assistant Houston Franks for much of his success.
“This season has been great,” said Jones. “[Franks] has taught me more than I could ever imagine goes into this sport. He’s coached many Olympians and national champions, and it’s great to be able to have a coach like him in my corner mentoring me along the way.”
His success as a Trojan in the 3,200, the longest run offered in high school competition, is evidence that shows his greatest strengths lie in distance events. While that is the longest race at the high school level, NCAA athletes participate in a 5,000-meter run, and Jones has quickly become his team’s strongest competitor in the race. He placed third in the event at one of the largest meets of the season, the Pepsi Florida Relays, and has ran consistently well all season.
Jones will look to ride the momentum he has built up over the course of the spring as he heads into what could be the biggest race of his life. He will be competing in the 5,000 for the Bulldogs in the East Preliminaries of the 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Tampa, Florida on May 24-26. The best 48 athletes of each event in the country are divided into east and west regions and compete in preliminaries for a spot to advance to the championship two weeks later.
“I feel very prepared for this race,” said Jones. “I have been working out well the past few weeks am ready to show my fitness. I had a bit of a hiccup at the SEC Championships as my last race, so I’m out to re-prove myself in a sense. In a race this big, it’s more tactical, so you have to be prepared for the race to go out slow and see who can kick their way to one of the qualifying spots. It’s not about times here, it’s about placement that gets you to the big dance in Oregon.”
Alexander believes his former runner has what it takes to advance, but he is proud of Jones for making it as far as he has, regardless of the result.
“It’s going to be an incredible experience,” Alexander said. “Just having the opportunity to be there, you’re amongst the elite already. It really turns into a crapshoot when you get to that level, what happens on that given day. But it’s pretty amazing just being in that company. He should be proud of his accomplishments, and how things fall are going to depend a little bit on the luck of the draw, a little bit on strategy and a little bit of good fortune and health.”
Jones will look to be one of the top 12 finishers in the 5,000, which would qualify him to travel to Eugene, Oregon and race in the NCAA National Championships against the best competition in the country on June 6-9.
“This is by far the most important race I will have run so far,” Jones said. “The culmination of the past seven years of running have led me to this weekend, and I’m just blessed to be here. At this stage, I have nothing to lose and will give it everything I have. The nerves are always there no matter how big the stage, you just have to know how to deal with them and respond.
“Hopefully my response is loud enough to make my hometown proud,” he added.
Alexander, a history teacher at the high school who is a member of the Troy track and field and cross country coaching staffs, speaks very highly of Jones.
“It’s tremendous to see Stephen’s growth from a high school student-athlete to what he has been able to accomplish,” he said. “It’s a whole new level, going from being competitive in the state of Ohio to being competitive collegiately at the national level, and it’s really neat watching him continue to grow and progress.”
For Stephen Jones, the road to competing in the national championships began in Troy. It has wound through Starkville and across the country. It has been one with many twists, turns, and obstacles in the way. It has never been an easy journey, and the future will be increasingly difficult. But the end of the road is in Eugene, and with only 5,000 more of his very best meters, he just may be able to get there.
Luke Severt is a contributor to the Troy Daily News.