Bloch-Jones geared for success
CHAMPAIGN — After Kandie Bloch-Jones won a Big Ten high jump title March 1, the Illinois freshman was pleasantly surprised to learn her reward wasn’t only a shiny first-place medal. Or an all-expenses-paid trip to Albuquerque, N.M., for the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships.
When the former state champion from Argenta-Oreana represents the Illini this weekend in and around the Albuquerque Convention Center, she’ll be dressed to the nines in new Illini apparel courtesy of the UI athletic department.
“I don’t know if everything’s going to be fitting in my suitcase,” Bloch-Jones said this week before her final workout at the UI Armory in preparation for nationals.
The smile on her face indicated she wouldn’t mind the luggage-stuffing challenge in the least.
According to Bloch-Jones, her updated Orange and Blue wardrobe consists of seven separate items, including shirt and tights for competition as well as a couple of jump suits.
“This is great to be a freshman and be able to experience this,” she said, adding, “And get all kinds of new gear. So this is just awesome.”
Confident that she is dressed for success, Bloch-Jones enters her first national meet Saturday on the perimeter of the spotlight as the No. 13 seed in a field of 16 high jumpers.
But that’s OK with the Illini rookie, who admits to experiencing an initial case of the jitters a couple weeks ago as the highest seed at the Big Ten meet.
“I think I’ll be a little bit nervous, but not as nervous as Big Tens just because I was ranked No. 1 at Big Ten, so I felt like that had a lot of pressure,” she said. “I feel like going to nationals, since I’m ranked toward the bottom, I don’t really have anything to lose.”
With UI head coach Ron Garner as a calming influence at the Big Ten meet, Bloch-Jones ended up clearing 5 feet, 103/4 inches — her second-best performance of the season. In the process, she became the first Illini female high jumper since 1997 and the fourth overall to win a conference indoor title.
By this point, Garner has come to expect that the precocious Illini rookie will adjust and adapt to whatever obstacles — nerves, an unconventional floor surface, a unique runway configuration — are thrown her way in the heat of competition.
“I think that’s what Kandie has demonstrated as a freshman,” Garner said. “Every time out’s been different, and we’ve just worked through it. And that’s what she’s done really well. She’s made the adjustments during competition. Not everybody can do that.”
The start of Bloch-Jones’ college career was hardly a blockbuster. In her first two meets, she failed to go higher than a fraction over 5-7.
Then, in late January in a meet hosted by Kentucky, she squared off against the likes of 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier Chancey Summers of Oregon and former SEC outdoor champion Taylor Burke of Florida. Bloch-Jones finished third, falling just a fraction of an inch short of 5-10.
“That was the breakthrough,” Garner said.
There would be another in mid-February at the Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Ark. Bloch-Jones, who entered the UI with a career-best 5-11 leap, went 5-111/2 while placing second. With the bar raised to 6-03/4 in that same meet, the Oreana native nearly cleared the bar on her second attempt, clipping it with her heel.
Still, Bloch-Jones had recorded the fourth-best indoor mark in program history. And in two meets since then, she’s gone at least 5-10.
“Jumping 5-10 and then 5-11, that just builds my confidence to where now that I go to nationals I (will) look at the bar and I go, ‘Oh, I’ve done that before,’ ” Bloch-Jones said.
At Albuquerque, she’ll be one of two freshmen in a high jump field loaded with veterans. Of the 16 qualifiers, 11 are juniors or seniors. For his freshman to make it this far, Garner says, “is a big deal.”
“And that’s what I want (is for) Kandie to go in and enjoy this. You have to kind of celebrate what things they’ve done well, not what they haven’t (yet) done.
“She’s prepared. We’re going to go in and work on what she can do and let everything else fall into place.”