MAHOMET — It takes a special type of high school athlete to earn recognition similar to what a professional or college star might experience.
CJ Shoaf was that sort of person during his time with the Mahomet-Seymour boys’ track and field program. Specifically in his final few months as a Bulldog.
“It was definitely weird because multiple times throughout our season I had people come up to me and say ‘hi,’ and I had no idea who they were,” Shoaf said. “I didn’t realize they were friends of people I jumped with. I had never met them before.”
What does it take to receive this sort of response from the general public? In Shoaf’s case, it was performing so well in his sport of choice that he won a state championship, placed inside the top five of a national tournament and secured a spot on a Big Ten roster.
The 2021 News-Gazette All-Area boys’ track and field Athlete of the Year was untouchable as a high jumper all season long, topping the IHSA Class 2A field by clearing 6 feet, 9 1/2 inches.
Shoaf finished one one-thousandth of a second shy of capturing the 2A 110-meter hurdles title, too, and he added a third-place finish in the 300 hurdles and an 18th-place effort in the 200.
The future University of Illinois athlete followed that busy day at Eastern Illinois’ O’Brien Stadium last month by taking fifth in the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation’s national high jump competition on July 1 in Eugene, Ore., with a clearance of 6-8 1/4.
Shoaf’s athletic achievements have turned him into a “superstar,” in the estimation of M-S coach Keith Pogue.
But Pogue believes Shoaf’s popularity springs from more than just his jumping and hurdling prowess.
“What’s going to be great for me in years to come is talking about this kid who really was dedicated and worked hard and kept his nose clean and was an example to others,” Pogue said. “That’s what’s going to stand out to me about him ... is a story of a kid who came from not being a big factor to being one of the best track athletes Mahomet’s ever seen, if not the best.”
Quick learnerAs Pogue alluded to, Shoaf wasn’t an instant sensation upon entering the high school track and field ranks.
He’s only competed in the high jump since eighth grade. And Pogue saw Shoaf as “a solid kid and OK athlete” when Shoaf told Pogue, formerly the Bulldogs’ football coach, that he was leaving football after playing as a freshman.
Then Shoaf “physically matured,” according to Pogue. Combine that with a tireless work ethic, an eventual connection to the local Pole Vault Junkies club and the teachings of M-S assistant coach Carroll Whitehouse and you wind up with the current version of Shoaf.
“His sophomore year I went to a few meets and watched him and realized pretty quickly, this kid is going to be pretty good,” Pogue said. “I had almost nothing to do with his success. Coach Whitehouse and his other coaches have done a great job.”
Shoaf also works with Whitehouse through Pole Vault Junkies. And Shoaf additionally trains in hurdling with Steve Luke through the Champaign facility.
“Those two coaches helped me a ton,” Shoaf said.
Shoaf actually didn’t have a high school hurdles coach during his sophomore season after Gary Garrison’s departure from the program. That didn’t stop Shoaf from qualifying for the 2A state meet in the 110 hurdles and nearly advancing to the final race on top of tying for sixth in the high jump.
The lack of a full-time hurdles coach drew Shoaf to YouTube videos for training and competition tips. Shoaf and Whitehouse still view clips from athletes, like high jump world-record holder Javier Sotomayor, as a means of improving Shoaf’s abilities.
“We were taking little bits and pieces from him and trying to see what I like and see what works,” Shoaf said. “Coach Whitehouse did so much research and was amazing with that.”
Of course, Whitehouse sends more credit in Shoaf’s direction for the young man’s track and field performances.
“He is a full-on high jump junkie,” Whitehouse said. “He was probably spending more time outside practice doing technical work. That sinks in, and that says this isn’t something you wake up one day and get good at.”
Friendly rivalsHigh jump pits typically aren’t overflowing with athletes. It’s not as easy to find kids who want to high jump as it is to find kids who want to sprint.
Yet Shoaf was surrounded by three M-S teammates, as well as athletes from Monticello, Uni High, Champaign Academy High and Iroquois West, at Judah Christian’s Field of Dreams high jump pit back on May 4.
Shoaf cleared 7 feet to easily take first place — no one else exceeded 5-10 — but Shoaf seemed to gain more enjoyment out of discussing strategy with the other jumpers and seeing them clear the bar.
“You’re competing against them, but if they have a good day they have a good day and I’m happy for them,” Shoaf said. “I want to see everybody do well.”
Shoaf said he’s particularly close with recent Paxton-Buckley-Loda graduate Brett Giese, who finished fourth in the 2A high jump at 6-2 3/4 last month.
“He’s one of my really good friends. We bounce ideas off of each other all the time,” Shoaf said. “I’ve been competing against the Eureka jumpers (Aden Sears and Elijah Skutt, who also cleared 6-2 3/4 at 2A state) my whole high school career. When you jump 7 feet, especially when you’re the only one in Illinois, everyone knows who you are. I get to meet a lot of new people.”
He also gets to bring a lot of new people into the high-jump fold. Maybe some athletes who otherwise wouldn’t have considered participating in the event.
“I’ve gotten a couple of my teammates to come over and try it out. At the end of practice when I’m doing stuff, they’ll come over and watch me do stuff,” Shoaf said. “Landon Nurmi did really well for our team. He’s a freshman, and he works really hard. ... I couldn’t get that kid to stop jumping in practice.”
On the national stageShoaf’s list of high-jumping compatriots further expanded at the beginning of this month, with his involvement in the NSAF outdoor national championships.
The Nike-sponsored event was held at the same location, the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field, as the United States Olympic Trials and the NCAA Championships that were held last month.
Shoaf said he learned shortly before the state meet that his past results earned him a berth in this prestigious national youth high jump field.
“I was sitting fourth or fifth in the nation at the time,” Shoaf said. “I was planning to go to the ones in New York and North Carolina outdoors last year, but those got canceled. Just being able to go to a nationals and have that experience was amazing. It was a really cool experience, and something I’ll never forget.”
Shoaf was the only Illinois athlete in the 20-man field, and he flew into Oregon the day of the meet. His leap of 6-8 1/4 was only bested by Oklahoma signee Kason O’Riley (7-0 1/4), Liberty signee Kennedy Sauder, Nebraska signee Tyus Wilson and Washington state’s Steven Schmidt (all 6-10 1/4).
“I came in at 6-6. ... I wasn’t even the last one to come to in. It was definitely crazy,” said Shoaf, who always was last to enter high-jump contests as a senior at M-S. “People from all over the nation were there. I think all of us are state champions ... or state runners-up. It was definitely the best of the best competition, and it was a lot of fun to jump.”
Whitehouse pointed to at least one clear benefit Shoaf gains for making the trip west.
“A lot of time (in Illinois) his opening height was a win, and it sure wasn’t (in Oregon),” Whitehouse said. “I suspect we’ll get to see those boys jumping against each other for several years. ... They’re all going to be on the national stage.”
At the very least, Shoaf and Wilson should run into one another via their future homes in the Big Ten.
Back together againShoaf verbally committed to Mike Turk’s Illinois track and field program in May and now is signed with the Illini.
He’ll become the second M-S product on the roster, joining sophomore Illinois thrower and 2019 N-G All-Area Athlete of the Year Hunter Hendershot.
“I really like my family, and I would like to be as close to them as I can,” Shoaf said. “And the team is so close. I think I’m going to fit in really well on the team. Being able to compete with (Hendershot) again is going to be a lot of fun.”
Shoaf also was drawn to Illinois by vertical jumps coach Lynn Smith, whom Shoaf had a chance to meet in person for the first time during the 2A state meet.
“We had a connection there,” Shoaf said. “It was like talking to one of my friends, and it was definitely really nice.”
Shoaf said he expects to continue running the 110 hurdles in college, as well, while leaving longer-distance hurdling in the past.
It’s fun for Shoaf to ponder his future as a college athlete. After all, he didn’t know he could obtain such a status. Nor that he could become a high school track and field superstar.
“It’s definitely crazy seeing all the hard work I put in over the past four years pay off,” Shoaf said. “There was one point I was deciding between baseball and track for high school. I didn’t even think college was in the picture there for either sport. Knowing I’m going to be a Division I athlete at one of the best colleges in the nation is crazy.”