By Josh Brown
Troy Daily News
AUSTIN, Texas — As Stephen Jones found out, having the right connections can help someone get on the right path.
Jones had the right people in his life, and now his path has led him to the NCAA Track and Field Championships.
A Mississippi State University junior on the cross country and track and field teams, Jones — a Troy High School graduate — was looking to find his way back from an injury suffered in the fall. A former Southeastern Conference champion that happened to move to his hometown of Troy gave him the idea of running a new event, his girlfriend — who already ran that event herself — taught him how and his event coach put it all together to help Jones quickly figure out the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and now Jones will run that event at the highest collegiate level at the NCAA Championships Wednesday night in Austin, Texas.
Oddly enough, running the steeplechase is a path that Jones — typically just a distance runner in high school and in his first two years of college — never expected to find himself on.
“No, I didn’t. (Former Troy cross country coach) Bob Campbell and (Troy cross country coach) Kevin Alexander both kind of steered me away from it,” Jones said. The steeplechase was usually run once per year in Miami County at Troy’s Herb Hartman Invitational while he was in high school. “I always saw it as an oddball kind of event. It looked dangerous and hard. But once I started to put the pieces together this year, it turned out to be something I’m pretty good at.”
As a Troy Trojan, the 2016 graduate was a three-time state qualifier both in track running the 3,200 and in cross country, leaving holding the school record in both — with his final race as a Trojan being a third-place finish at the 2016 state meet with a school-record 9:01.94 in the 3,200.
And Jones had already seen plenty of success at Mississippi State entering this track season. During cross country season this year, he led the Bulldogs with a 27th-place finish at the Arturo Barrios Invitational, running the 8K in 25:06.6. And as a sophomore, he finished 40th in the 5,000 at the NCAA East preliminaries in Tampa, Fla., running a time of 14:47.29.
As a freshman, he was the Bulldogs’ top finisher in the South Region Championship 10K during cross country season, and during indoor track season that year he was named to the All-SEC Freshman team, running an 8:31.84 in the 3,000 to finish as the conference’s best freshman in the event.
But it’s been in running the steeplechase as a junior where Jones has truly found success — even if finding the way to it was strange.
“This past fall, I ended up getting injured to the point I had to have surgery on my right IT band, so I was kind of down and out all fall,” Jones said. “I needed something to get back in the saddle training-wise, to get back running and get excited again.”
And that’s when those connections came in handy.
“A former SEC champion from Arkansas, Kyle Hosting, moved to Troy of all places last year,” Jones said. “He connected with me via social media, and we started running together a little bit. He said that with my body build, I’d probably be pretty good at this if I gave it a try. And it kind of made sense — as a distance runner in high school, that’s 3,200 meters, and this is 3,000. Of course, it has those barriers and hurdles and water, though.
“And then my teammate and girlfriend, Sylvia Russell, she is a steeplechaser herself, and she really coached me and gave me all of her tips and tricks in the event. And then my event coach, Houston Franks, helped put all those pieces together. Throughout the season, I’ve been figuring it out as we go — and I’ve been able to PR in it every time I’ve run it.”
Running it for the first time at the Al Schmidt Bulldog Relays in March, he finished second in 9:06.18. Then at the Bryan Clay Invitational in April, he ran his personal best in 8:53.23 to finish third and take the SEC lead in the event at the time. Then at the SEC Championships in May, Jones finished second in the steeplechase, missing his personal-best time by only 0.09 seconds. He followed that by running a personal-best 14:08.67 in the 5,000 — the fourth-best time in Mississippi State history — to take seventh, helping the Bulldogs finish eighth overall at the meet, their best finish since 2015.
He saved his best for the NCAA East prelims on May 24 in Jacksonville, Fla., though. Jones broke the Mississippi State University record in the steeplechase, running a time of 8:42.68 — breaking Simeon Kigen’s old record of 8:43.68 set all the way back in 1982. That run was good enough for ninth place and earned him a spot at this week’s NCAA Championships, with the top 12 in each event advancing.
“I’ve PRed every time I’ve run it — and big PRs, too — to the point where I’m here now,” Jones said. “This will be the fifth time I’ve run it, so I’m still in the learning mode even. I didn’t expect to break the school record this year, though. Maybe by the end of my career, I thought that 8:43 would be a good time to run by the time I’m done here. And then once I got into the (NCAA prelims) race, I noticed about a mile in that nobody wanted to make a move to take it out — the top three out of each heat get the auto qualifiers out. So I took it out.
“I’ve always been good at the running between the hurdles and the water pit because I’m naturally tall, but the hurdles is something I’ve always had to focus on finding the form for. So I just focused in on that and let everything else take its course, and before I knew it I was leading the heat and on pace to break the school record. And I also got two second away from hitting the U.S.A. Championships automatic qualifier, which is 8:40.”
The NCAA Championships run from June 5-8 at Mike A. Myers Stadium in Austin, Texas. Jones will run in the first of two heats in the 3,000 steeplechase semifinals at 7:02 p.m. on Wednesday night, with the finals at 7:32 p.m. on Thursday — though the weather could potentially alter the time schedule. The top five from each heat will advance to the finals, as well as the two best times after that.
Jones is entering with the 11th-best time in his heat and 21st-best time overall — but as has been the case throughout his career, putting him side-by-side with high-level competitors always brings out the best in him, and he is looking to not only qualify for the finals but also reach the U.S.A. Championships.
“Honestly, I’m trying not to stress out about the prelim too much,” Jones said. “At the NCAA prelims, the top three in each heat got out, and here it’s the top five, so technically there’s more automatic spots. Obviously the stakes are higher, but I’m just trying to think of it the same way I did last race. And obviously the competition is better, but I feel like if I execute the way that I have these other races and stay relaxed and keep having fun with it, I should get the result that I want.
”I usually don’t have too much of a problem rising to the occasion, so I feel like getting put with people that are just that little bit faster than me will help me one, get into the final, and two, get that automatic qualifier so I can run in the U.S.A. Championships — which would be awesome, because I’d get to line up against a bunch of my idols growing up.”
Contact Troy Daily News Sports Editor Josh Brown at email@example.com, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.
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