CHAMPAIGN – Joe Knuffman figured he'd gotten off a decent long jump but certainly nothing to get excited about.
The reaction from the folks in the stands told him otherwise.
"I heard the crowd kind of going crazy," the Illinois senior said Saturday, "and I really didn't think it was that far."
Far enough to all but guarantee Knuffman his first trip to the NCAA Track and Field Championships. Far enough to rank in the top five nationally. Far enough to shatter his previous best by more than a foot.
"I got pretty emotional," Knuffman said after learning he'd reached 25 feet, 8 inches in the Illini Twilight Meet.
With good reason. The former Class A state champion from Liberty hadn't jumped farther than 24-73/4. When Knuffman eclipsed the long-sought 25-foot barrier, he did so with a vengeance.
"In practice, I've been hitting big ones like that all year," he said. "It's just a matter of doing it."
Although Knuffman's performance Saturday only provisionally qualifies him for the NCAA Championships June 3-6 in Buffalo, N.Y, realistically he can pack his bags. The leap ties Knuffman for fourth in the nation, pending word of other jumps around the country this weekend.
"I think he's in good shape," UI coach Gary Wieneke said.
There was little to indicate Knuffman was about to pop the big one. His previous jumps yielded disappointing distances of 24-41/4 and 24-21/2.
"I was kind of down about it," Knuffman said.
It didn't help that the wind was gusting from seemingly every direction at the UI Outdoor Track Stadium.
"You'd catch a head wind here and you'd catch a tail wind there, and it just swirled down the whole runway," Knuffman said.
But as Knuffman stood poised for his final attempt, "that time the wind just kind of died down. And bang!"
When word gets out, it could be the shot heard 'round the Big Ten, if not the nation. Knuffman never has placed higher than fifth in the conference.
"It's definitely a breakthrough," UI field events coach Tom Doyle said. "But I'm not surprised in the least. He's had a lot of jumps before that were that far or further that have been fouls.
"So he's been working really hard to correct that."
Doyle has worked just as hard to convince the long jumper he was capable of a performance such as Saturday's. Working hard, too, to point out time was running out for the Illini senior.
"We had a long talk before the Drake Relays," Knuffman said, referring to the late-April meet. "We just decided it was time to get really serious about it and really look at myself as a national competitor even though I haven't been in the past."
It was Knuffman's immediate future Doyle focused on in the wake of Saturday's breakthrough, a future that includes the Big Ten Championships in another two weeks and then the NCAA Championships.
"Hopefully, this is the start of something, rather than a pinnacle," Doyle said. "I definitely feel if conditions are right – if he's fresh and through a peak cycle and confidence is up high – that he's as good as anybody else in the nation right now."
n Armstrong strong.
Running his first 200 meters of the outdoor season, Illini freshman Sherman Armstrong ran the fastest time in the Big Ten this spring: 20.86 seconds.
"That'll pop some eyes in the Big Ten," Wieneke said.
It was 1 of 8 victories for the Illini men in Saturday's unscored meet. Armstrong also won the 110-meter hurdles and anchored the UI's first-place 4x100 relay team, which included Tunde Ridley, Randy Gillon and Tyrone Jones.
In the women's meet, Illini sophomore Lyria Martin won the 400 and ran on a first-place 4x100 relay unit with Benita Kelley, Kerry Ann Richards and Aspen Burkett.
Parkland College's top finishers were Jered Pals (high jump), Fletcher Boyd (400 hurdles) and Amy Lorenc (200). Each placed third.