MORRIS – From an uncertain start to her track and field career, 2014 was a historic spring for Morris' Haleigh Knapp. The senior high jumper became just the second athlete in school history to win three state titles in an event (Adrianne Leschewski, 1998-2000 in the shot put) and fifth statewide to win the state title in the high jump event three times. Knapp cleared 5-foot-8 to win the title by an inch over Bloomington's Molly McGraw this past spring.
"This year felt the most exciting because the competition was so good," Knapp said. "I knew that I had to do what I had to do to win, but I was so nervous and I had absolutely no clue about what the outcome would be. At first, I was really nervous, and I kind of let that take over, but I pulled through and did it. I really couldn't have asked for a better day."
And, after having such success at the Eastern Illinois University complex over the years, Knapp decided to make it her home for the next four, accepting a scholarship to compete for the Panthers in college.
"That's a funny story," Knapp said about moving on to EIU. "When I first started looking at colleges, I remember saying that the very last place I wanted to go was Eastern. I visited a few bigger schools, and my dad finally talked me into taking one of my official visits to Eastern.
"Once I got there, I got along with the coaches really well and it just felt homey to me, like a place I would fit into. Some of those bigger schools were just so big they were overwhelming, and some of the small schools I looked at were just way too small for me. Eastern was just the right size, and it's all right there. It's not all spread out like a lot of other campuses are."
When Knapp began her track and field career at Shabbona Middle School in seventh grade, she had no idea that high jump would be her event. Or even which event at all would be.
"The first day of track practice, me and some friends were just moving around from event to event, trying them all out," she said. "The high jump just ended up being the best fit for me. But in no way when I was done at Shabbona and walked into the high school did I think I would leave high school with three state championships."
Some of those titles can be attributed to the work Knapp had some with Jump High, an athletic club dedicated to high jumpers and pole vaulters headed up by coach Bob Cervenka, who has coached five IHSA state champions, 102 state qualifiers and 57 state finalists.
"After my freshman year, I started going to Jump High," Knapp said. "Coach Cervenka saw me at the state meet there and thought I could do something special, so I started training with him. It's what I did over the summers when school was out and we would go to AAU meets and stuff like that. It turned into a year-round thing."
Except for this summer, which has seen Knapp traveling to such places as San Diego and Seattle on vacation before heading to Charleston in a few weeks for her life's next chapter.
"I decided to take the summer off from meets," Knapp said. "I am still sticking with my workouts, but just not jumping in meets. I wanted to have some time.
"I don't know what to expect at Eastern, but I am excited. I am not going in there with a bunch of goals because I just want to get into the groove of things and see what happens. It's all going to be so new. I am pretty excited about seeing what weight training is going to do for me.
"Also, I am not sure what I am going to major in yet, but everything I have thought about, Eastern has. I am going to take a bunch of different classes and see what stands out for me."
Kind of like that first day at track practice.