Bradley Central track coach Larry Cotton raked and readied the same spot in the sand again and again at the triple jump pit at Walker Valley Tuesday afternoon. Before James Stovall raced down the single-lane track, hopped, stepped and jumped, his competition had already gone in the books: 38 feet, 39 feet, and one or two attempts that hit 40.
Very little separated the field behind Stovall, and, at first, nothing seemed to distinguish Stovall’s jumps. The muscular, 6-foot-4 Bradley Central senior hit almost the same spot as the rest of his competition.
This was repeated through two rounds of the event, but come time for Stovall’s third jump—he was the last to go—everyone began filing away from the sand pit. Stovall had already won easily and there was no need for a final attempt.
What set Stovall’s marks apart?
Before the event, Cotton had prepared a makeshift starting point out of athletic tape for Stovall. The line on the track started him four feet farther back than every other competitor.
“He is a prototypical triple-jumper, with the long legs,” Cotton says. “He’s strong and the (record-setting) kids that I had before him look just like him.”
In last week’s Best of Preps meet, Stovall set the meet and school record in the triple jump, going 46 feet, 10 inches. At Walker Valley Tuesday, a little more than 44 feet was enough to outdistance the field and qualify for state, where he’ll be the favorite in Class AAA.
“I want to get at least 47, but my goal would probably be 48,” Stovall said. "I’ve always wanted to get 48. … It will be a lot more competition at state and I think that will push me and drive me.”
Two months ago, Stovall may have been imagining a state championship-winning jump, but had no way to execute the dream. He wasn’t cleared by a doctor to compete until late March.
Stovall separated his shoulder in Bradley Central’s final football game in the fall. He was forced to miss all of basketball season and had surgery in January. He’s still balancing physical therapy twice a week with track practice.
And eventually, a Naval Academy workout routine will fill his summer schedule.
Stovall signed a letter of intent to play football at Navy in February, but the regiment that coaches sent him is still too rigorous for his ailing shoulder.
“I feel great,” Stovall said. “I’d say I’m at about 90 percent. I’m not 100 percent … but I’ll be ready next year.”
The decision to go to Navy was influenced by the opportunity to play Division I as well as a family tree dotted with service members.
“That’s probably one of the greatest opportunities a kid can have today,” Cotton said of Stovall’s college plans.
The standout wide receiver agrees with his coach, to the point where he’s been shy about asking for more. No one from Navy has inquired about his interest in jumping for the track team in addition to playing football. It’s an idea, though, that Stovall embraces.
“I want to jump for them, but I don’t want to tell the coach I want to jump for them,” Stovall said.
Cotton thinks it's just a matter of time.
“I told him, ‘I think the track coach will want to talk to you when he finds out the distances you’ve jumped,’” Cotton said.
Part of what made Stovall a touted recruit in football and a sorely-missed piece on the basketball team this season is displayed clearly on the track. His 40-inch vertical leap grabbed the attention of college coaches and made him one of the area’s best rebounders as a junior.
When Stovall returned to the track in March, he registered a 6-foot-2 high jump and hasn’t faltered below that mark since. In Murfeesboro, at the state meet in two weeks, he’ll compete in the high jump, triple jump and decathlon. The only hinderance caused by his shoulder is that Cotton won’t let him pole vault in the decathlon.
“I would cry,” Cotton said at the thought of worsening the injury. “I think the shoulder is pretty good now, but we still try to not let him do things that might make it deteriorate.”
Still, it's been hard to hold his best athlete back. There was a time, during basketball season, when Stovall went to Cotton and said, "I feel like a kid in a candy store. And I can't eat no candy."
As the recovery process draws to a close, Stovall is grabbing the rewards that were withheld through the winter. The record-breaking performance at Best of Preps was a treat. The line of tape and his smooth stride to state qualification Tuesday added a bit of sweetness. Now, he's looking for a final bite.
"It means a lot that I’m up there with some of the best, but it would mean nothing without a state championship," Stovall said.
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