May 22, 2013

Decision is a winner

Willman’s choice lays track for scholarship

Devin Golden

TUNNEL HILL — Jonathan Willman’s original love was basketball. But the Northwest Whitfield High School athlete made a sacrifice.

After suffering a serious injury two years ago, he gave up that sport to ensure his track and field aspirations stayed possible.

In the end, that paid off.

On Tuesday at Northwest, Willman signed an athletic scholarship that will cover his full tuition at Rome’s Shorter University, where he’ll be part of the school’s track and field team next season.

In November 2011, Willman tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a Northwest basketball game. Recovery time for the injury is anywhere from six to 18 months, and Willman missed both basketball and track season his junior year. He then decided he wasn’t mentally ready to come back for basketball, a decision Willman called “hard” because it meant he was giving up the sport to which he had previously dedicated the most time.

“He understood what he had to do to get back,” said Northwest track coach Chad Brewer. “And look, he loves basketball. He loves it. He gave up that because he knew that it might have been a little too early to do the pounding and running on the leg. ... That thought process, you don’t see that in a 17-year-old. To give up something he loves to be the best he can in track, I think that says a lot about his character and maturity.”

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. Entering his first meet of this past season, he didn’t have much reason to think he’d shine early in his comeback. But he long jumped the same distance with which he’d won the region title two years prior.

“My first practices were horrible, scary horrible,” he said, noting his average jump in workouts after the injury was around 17 feet. “I hadn’t jumped like that. All I did was stationary things. It was all a mental thing. ... I just remembered from (my sophomore year) and that helped.”

At this year’s Class 4A Sectional B meet — the qualifying gateway from region to state — Willman surpassed all competitors with a jump of 23-6 despite being seeded last going into the event based on his region performance. He finished fifth in the Class 4A state meet with a jump of 22-9. He also competed in the 100-meter dash and 4x100 relay at state.

Brewer said the long jump win at the sectional meet was an eyebrow-raising performance that revved up Willman’s recruiting profile.

“Let’s face it, he didn’t do track last year and wasn’t being recruited by anybody,” Brewer said. “He’s not on anybody’s radar. Then all of the sudden, he jumps 23 feet and we have college coaches asking, ‘Who is this Willman kid?’ It was crazy.”

Willman also was considering Samford University in suburban Birmingham, Ala., but listed a few reasons for why he chose Shorter.

One is that the school is entering the final season of its transition from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the NCAA’s Division II, in which Shorter will compete during the 2014-2015 school year. The Hawks competed in the National Christian College Athletic Association this past season and finished eighth at the national outdoor championship. Shorter’s women’s team finished second in the national outdoor championship and won the NCCAA national indoor title.

Scott Byrd is Shorter’s director of track and field, but he is just one of many who could play a role in the development of Willman, who said he’ll start primarily as a long jump competitor but could add events in future seasons.

“They have eight track coaches. That’s new to me, having only three at the most,” he said. “I’m going to have a jumping coach and a sprinting coach now. And the facilities are top notch. I was shocked when I first went down and thought it was amazing.”

Brewer said Willman’s high school athletics career and the hardship of his injury have built maturity.

“College recruiters are looking for fits,” Brewer said. “Shorter obviously needed a long jumper, and it gets one who has great grades and can jump 23 feet. The sky is the limit for Jonathan.”