As a two-time state champion in the high jump and someone who trains at Jump High Athletic Club, Haleigh Knapp seems to take track and field quite seriously.
When Knapp first took up the sport at Shabbona Middle School in Morris, however, it was mostly with the intention of spending time with friends and having something to do.
Certainly Knapp did not expect to advance to the state level in the high jump for each of the next five years, or to become the first Morris repeat state champion since Adrianne Leschewski in 1999 and 2000. For winning her second state title, Knapp is the 2013 Morris Daily Herald Female Track and Field Performer of the Year.
Getting to state
Knapp got a later introduction to track and field than many of her peers. She did not join the team at Shabbona until she was a seventh-grader because she was a cheerleader the year prior.
“At Shabbona, it’s kind of the sport that everybody does, because it’s like a boy-girl sport. Mostly all of my friends were in it,” Knapp said.
“I mean, I didn’t expect to become this successful. I was just kind of doing it in my spare time.”
It did not take Knapp long to settle on the high jump. She says she tried the event at one of her first practices and basically never stopped. High jumping came naturally, she says, because she had long been active in gymnastics and tumbling.
It also did not take Knapp long to have success. She tied for eighth place in the high jump at the IESA’s 7AA girls state meet in 2009 and was sixth in the event at the 8AA state meet in 2010.
“One meet I always remember is an invite that we hosted at Shabbona when I was eighth grade. I jumped (5 feet, 1 1/2 inches) as an eighth grader,” Knapp said. “That was kind of like a realization point for me.”
Knapp’s first season at Morris Community High School was Lori Dite’s first as head coach of the Redskins.
“She was a hard worker and a coachable kid, but we weren’t quite sure freshman year where it was going to go. We knew she had done well in junior high in the high jump,” Dite said. “We didn’t really get to work too closely with her on a lot of the high jump things. With just two coaches and all the different events to worry about, it was too difficult to get to each kid all the time, so she worked more on her own and with some of the older girls that high jumped.”
Knapp did qualify for the IHSA’s Class 2A state final meet in 2011, where she placed eighth in the girls high jump, clearing the bar at 5 feet, 3 inches. She was the only freshman to finish in the top 12.
A few weeks before the 2011 state meet, Knapp began working with Bob Cervenka, who is the head coach at Jump High.
“I saw some potential and some talent, certainly,” Cervenka said, “but she had work to do if she wanted to be more than a 5-1 jumper. I didn’t know then what she could become or if she had the kind of drive to get there.”
Becoming a champion
From that point forward, Cervenka says, Knapp began working with him fairly regularly, and the results were improved technique and significantly improved results by the end of her sophomore year at Morris.
In addition to her club training, the way Knapp practiced with the Redskins was different after that freshman season.
“Her sophomore year, she worked so much harder,” Dite said, “and not just on jumping but on drills — starting block drills, sprints, ability drills, a lot more conditioning drills. Freshman year, she came to practice and practiced jumps, and that was it. The last two years, we had her doing structured drills. She had her form down, for the most part, but it was more conditioning and more her getting in great shape.”
Knapp cleared the bar at 5 feet, 7 inches at the 2011 state meet to win by an inch over Stacey Sinclair of PORTA. Knapp followed that up by winning by two inches over Katie Trupp of Burlington Central this spring, with a peak jump of 5 feet, 8 inches.
Initially Knapp had difficulty accepting the idea that she could win a state championship. Even now, she struggles to grasp her success.
“I mean, I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve won state two times in a row. I know it happened. I still can’t believe it completely,” Knapp said. “Emotionally it hasn’t set in and I don’t think it will for a while. You never think it’s going to happen to you. You never think you’re going to be the best at something.”
Records and recruitment
The Class 2A girls state-meet record is 5 feet, 9 1/2 inches and was set by Sara Maxson of Springfield in 2010. Knapp wants to add her name to the record book next spring.
“I’d like to tie it or break it,” Knapp said. “I can’t predict the future. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m hoping for the best.”
Dite believes the mark is achievable for Knapp.
“If you look at her history and what she’s jumped each year, I don’t think another inch and a half is out of her reach,” Dite said. “She’s really going to hit it hard. With her club jumping and the fact that we’re for sure going to push her hard her senior year since that’s the goal she has, she absolutely could do it.”
At Shabbona, Knapp ran some relays in addition to her high jumping, but she has mostly been a one-event athlete in high school. She says she is open to entering other events for the Redskins in 2014. Dite says she can see Knapp being a successful sprinter.
“That’s one of the things colleges look for if they’re considering you for a scholarship. They like to be able to put you in other events,” Dite said. “It’s great to specialize in one, but I think she is wanting to become more marketable to various colleges.”
Cervenka says the opportunity is there for Knapp to continue high jumping beyond the prep level.
“It’s hard to saw how good she could become,” Cervenka said. “We’ve already seen her go from a 5-3 jumper to someone who’s jumping 5-6, 5-7 and now 5-8. ... If you’re getting calls from Big 10 (Conference) schools, you’re already doing something right.”