Illinois'' Knuffman jumping for joy

Illinois'' Knuffman jumping for joy

   WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind.  You might say Joe Knuffman was bred to be a long jumper. Not what you''d expect from someone who grew up on a hog farm.

   He has taken advantage of opportunities denied to his mother, who as an 11-year-old won a national age-group title with a jump of nearly 17 feet. There was no high school track team for the former Paula Fischer.

   There was no college scholarship for her son, even after he won a Class A state title. But Knuffman''s zest for his sport was evident Saturday when the Illinois senior finished fifth at the 88th Big Ten Indoor Championships.

   "He''s just doing it because he loves it," UI coach Gary Wieneke said.

   Knuffman''s four points helped the Illini to a good start, capped by their repeat victory in the distance medley relay. They are in fifth place with 161/2 points.

   Illinois remains an underdog to Wisconsin, which has won the last three team titles, and Minnesota, which never has won this meet. Heading into today''s 12 finals, Minnesota and Michigan share the lead with 24 points each.

   In an event in which Knuffman was No. 9 in premeet rankings and that featured NCAA indoor runner-up Bashir Yamini of Iowa, victory was shockingly close. How close?

   Enough that Wisconsin field events coach Mark Napier bolted out of the stands to let Illini counterpart Tom Doyle know that Knuffman''s jump was a whopper.

   "When I got out in the sand, I didn''t pull through and one foot was a little bit back," explained Knuffman, whose jump would have been near 26 feet if he had controlled the landing.

   Knuffman settled for 23-111/2, exceeding his previous indoor best of 23-63/4 on three separate attempts. Yamini, a junior out of Thornridge High School, repeated as champion at 24-111/4.

   "Everyone''s competing well so far," Knuffman said. "We deserve this. We''ve worked hard for it."

   None more so than Knuffman. Not until last year did he ever score in a Big Ten meet, finishing fifth outdoors at Champaign.

   He intends to graduate in May with a degree in agricultural economics, balancing sports and studies with frequent trips home to Liberty.

   Sometimes he feeds the hogs, sometimes he "plays veterinarian." Sometimes he just likes to be there.

   "It gives me something else to do besides school," he said. "That''s why track has been so great."

   Knuffman credits Doyle, who coached two-time Olympic bronze medalist Joe Greene at Ohio State, for his development.

   "I learned a lot," Knuffman said. "I could coach the event now. He (Doyle) definitely knows what he''s doing. Knows how to treat people, too."

   In the distance medley, Cortney Lamb lost most of a 35-meter lead but finished in a winning time of 9:50.73, just 1.25 seconds off the meet record.

   Freshman Matt Saarima ran a 1,200 in 3:00.1, Tyrone Jones a 400 in 48.5 and Bobby True an 800 in 1:50.4. Lamb''s 1,600 was 4:11.6, and he said he was sure he could have held off Wisconsin anchorman Matt Downin.

   True and Lamb are hoping for a 1-2 finish in today''s 800 final. The Illini also advanced Chris Jones and Sherman Armstrong in the 200, Chris Jones and Tyrone Jones in the 400, Matt Klima in the 600 and Rob Winfield in the mile.