June 23, 2013

All-Area Spring Boys Athlete of the Year: Willman excelled in return from injury

By Devin Golden

— Jonathan Willman won’t lie.

Even he was surprised by his performance at sectionals.

Despite suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in November 2011, Willman had a successful recovery and became the signature long jumper for Northwest Whitfield High School’s boys track and field team during his senior season. A year mixed with ups and downs concluded in the ultimate coming-out party at this year’s Class 4A Sectional B meet — the qualifying gateway from the Region 7-4A event to the Class 4A state meet in Jefferson.

Willman surpassed all competitors with a jump of 23 feet, 1 1/2 inches despite being seeded last going into the event based on his region performance.

All of a sudden, he had arrived.

“I always felt I could do it. I just never did it,” he said. “But at the time, yeah, I guess I was pretty shocked.”

For his stellar season, Willman has been named The Daily Citizen’s All-Area Spring Team Boys Athlete of the Year.

As a sophomore, Willman won the Region 7-4A title in the long jump with a leap of 20 feet, 8 1/2 inches and qualified for the Class 4A state meet in that event plus the 400-meter dash and the triple jump. However, his junior year put quite a question mark over his career. That’s when the injury happened as he was playing for Northwest’s varsity basketball team. The setback kept him from the following track and field season.

His senior year started with some hiccups, as he jumped about 17 feet in some practices before getting as high as 20-1 1/2 at the region meet for a fourth-place finish.

Still, he and his coaches knew that wouldn’t be nearly good enough to advance beyond sectionals and place at state.

“We changed his approach a little bit in between the region meet and sectionals meet,” said Chad Brewer, Willman’s track coach at Northwest this past season and the next head football coach for Murray County. “He just seemed like he was running faster and hitting the board better and jumping farther in practice.”

It was more than just the jump that surprised Willman.

One year ago, he was just trying to get back to competing. He had a tough time imagining he’d enjoy this much success.

“If you would’ve asked me that a year ago, I’m trying to think where I was at,” Willman said. “I’ll tell you, I was working hard, but I don’t know. ... I always had my confidence. You had to be confident. But honestly, no, I don’t think so. I went from riding a stationary bike in rehab and not being able to move at all to jumping 23 feet. It’s pretty amazing to me.”

He also competed in the 100-meter dash and 4x100 relay at state, although he didn’t advance past preliminaries in either one. He holds school records in the long jump for his sectionals performance and the 100 (10.94 seconds), which he also did at sectionals.

And there were even more events Willman was more than capable of excelling in, Brewer believes.

“Jonathan could’ve ran the 200 and done a great job in the 200,” Brewer said. “He could’ve ran the 400 and done a great job. He could only be in five events. He had a ton of value to our team.”

At state, he also had to overcome weather conditions. Colder temperatures are tougher on joints, Willman said, and his rebuilt left knee was affected.

“You have to get that knee warmed up,” Willman said. “When it’s colder, it’s a whole lot harder to get that warmed up. You definitely want to be jumping and running in the hot sun rather than cold rain.”

Still, to be so close to becoming a state champion is something he can hold his head high about. His state jump of 22-9 would have won in three of the classifications, but Willman finished fifth.

Now he’s off to Shorter University, with a full-tuition athletic scholarship, and plans to compete with the school’s track and field program.

“It’s like I said, I got fifth at state, but I’m not disappointed with that because Class 4A was so competitive,” Willman said. “I hope to be an inspiration for guys who have had bad injuries like I had, or even worse.”