AUSTIN — KC Lightfoot just keeps raising the bar on Baylor pole vault history.
Here’s the thing, though — Lightfoot is one of several freshmen elevating expectations at his respective school.
The BU freshman powered to a fourth-place finish at Wednesday’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, surpassing 18-8 1/4. It’s the second All-America finish of the year for Lightfoot, who was eighth nationally during the indoor season.
He was one of three freshmen in the top eight, and one of four in the top nine. That includes world-leading wunderkind Mondo Duplantis of LSU, who ended up finishing second after topping out at 19-0 1/4. The winner was South Dakota junior Chris Nilsen, who repeated as NCAA champ by flying to a meet-record 19-4 1/4.
Sam Houston State sophomore Clayton Fritsch topped 18-10 1/4 on his final attempt at that height to prevent Lightfoot from moving up a spot to the bronze medal position.
Lightfoot had nothing to really nit-pick about his effort, though.
“My overall goal was to try to get top three, and I ended up fourth,” said Lightfoot, whose performance was Baylor’s best in the event since Kurt Hanna finished second at the 1997 NCAA meet. “But there’s no complaining. I almost jumped a (personal record) at NCAAs on the first attempt to come in fourth. It’s hard to complain at all about that, so I’m definitely happy.”
Lightfoot showed some springy legs from the outset of the event. He entered at the 17-6 1/2 height, and had no issue soaring over that initial mark to quickly put himself on the board.
From there, the competitors just kept pushing one another. As the bar climbed higher and higher, the fans at UT’s Mike A. Myers Stadium rose to their feet in unison and began “ooooohing” and “ahhhhhhing” with every successful clearance.
Seven different athletes cleared 18-8 1/4 (5.7 meters), the most in the history of the NCAA meet to surpass that mark.
LSU’s Duplantis jumped 19-8 1/4 earlier in the Tigers’ season, an NCAA record and the No. 1 mark in the world this year. So, he’s the guy everyone is chasing, Lightfoot said, even though Nilsen ended up vanquishing Duplantis in the end.
“You look at all these guys. Mondo, a freshman, jumping six meters. In a short response way, we all want to try to beat him,” Lightfoot said. “So we’re all going to keep training even harder to try to jump higher.”
Texas Tech junior Brandon Bray put together a clutch meet as well. The former UIL state champion from China Spring cleared both 18-4 1/2 and 18-8 1/4 on his third and final try at those heights, showing a flair for the dramatic. Both efforts were personal bests for Bray, who finished seventh to garner All-America honors.
Baylor senior Wil London has been dreaming about a golden sunset to his college career all season. He didn’t execute a perfect race in Wednesday’s semifinals of the 400-meter dash, but he didn’t need to be perfect on this day to move on to the final.
London pierced the final curve with verve, but couldn’t catch Liberty’s Alejandro Zapata on the home stretch. With about 20 meters to go, London accelerated a bit to give himself enough distance on the rest of the pack in his heat and snag second and an automatic spot in Friday’s final.
London clocked 45.32, second to Zapata (45.12) in his heat and fourth overall on the day. Houston’s Kahmari Montgomery zipped around in an impressive 44.80, and North Carolina A&T’s Trevor Stewart won his heat 44.84.
“I realized at the end that I wasn’t going to catch (Zapata), because he was finishing strong,” London said. “So, at that point, it was just try to go in with a fast time, at least in second. And that’s what I did. I ended up going in with the second-fastest second time. I won’t get Lane 1, but I won’t get Lane 9, so I’m happy with that.”
Indeed, London shouldn’t be saddled with Lane 1 for Friday’s final, which he’d been tagged with each of the past two years.
Even in the immediate minutes after Wednesday’s race, London was still all business, as he mentally prepared himself for one more big race day as a Bear.
“Even though I didn’t win my heat, I still got a good lane for Friday,” London said. “I did what I had to do. No reason to be happy. I’ve been here before, so I know that happiness is winning and getting on that platform in first place.”
Besides Montgomery, Stewart and Zapata, the rest of the field for Friday’s 400 final includes Houston’s Obi Igbokwe, Texas’s Jonathan Jones, Texas A&M’s Bryce Deadmon and Florida’s Chantz Sawyers.
Running in the same heat as London, Baylor sophomore Trey Fields came in at 46.05 seconds, which ranked 15th of the 24 runners in the field, not fast enough to advance. Fields was making his first NCAA appearance in the open 400, though was part of BU’s All-American 4x400 relay team last year.
And speaking of the 4x400 relay, London saved his real juice for that semifinal race. Baylor’s runners have been wanting to send coach Clyde Hart out with an NCAA title in that race, and they gave themselves a chance by winning their heat to qualify for Friday’s final.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story, not in the slightest. On Baylor’s second leg, Fields tweaked a nagging hamstring injury, and literally found himself limping as he strode around the track. Yet he didn’t stop running, and managed to get the stick around.
BU’s third leg Chris Platt helped make up some ground with a 45.5-second split before passing to London for the anchor. The BU senior had three runners in front of him when he got the baton, and trailed the leader from Western Kentucky by a good 25 meters.
However, London turned in a superhuman effort, picking off the runners from South Carolina and Arkansas by the backstretch and nearly catching the Western Kentucky anchor as well. Ten more meters and he would’ve brought Baylor all the way back to first.
His split time was clocked at 44.16. It was the fastest split time of the day.
Western Kentucky, meanwhile, was later disqualified, giving Baylor the heat win.
“I knew those guys I was running against, I’d be able to catch them,” London said. “They were more scared than I was. When you have a lead like that, it’s tough mentally. I try to break down my opponents one by one. That’s what I did. Don’t let them go out too hard, don’t let them get away from you.”
Baylor coach Todd Harbour said London’s leg was incredibly impressive, yet not surprising.
“He was back. But, you just knew, Wil’s a competitor, he’s a senior,” Harbour said. “You just knew he was going to do it. If he had to run 43, he was going to run 43. He was going to run whatever it took. That’s just who Wil is. A lot of heart.”
Baylor’s time of 3:02.54 was a season best and the fifth-best time of the day despite Fields’ rough leg. Fields garnered plenty of praise from his teammates just for not quitting.
“I know Trey pulled up a little bit, he could have certainly stopped,” said leadoff leg Matthew Moorer. “A lot of people would have stopped. He kept going. He gave us a chance.”
Harbour said that the Baylor training staff would try to get Fields ready to run Friday, but that if he couldn’t go, he expected senior Caleb Dickson, the alternate, to step in without a hitch.
Texas A&M clocked the top semifinal time at 3:01.26, and should be one of the favorites in Friday’s final. Joining the Aggies and Bears in that race will be Iowa, North Carolina A&T, South Carolina, Houston, Florida and Arkansas.
The NCAA meet continues on Thursday with the start of women’s action. For Baylor, that means Aaliyah Miller in the semifinals of the 800-meter run and the women’s 4x400 relay squad.