Little Rock’s own Johnathan Jones literally clearing new heights for UALR en route to NCAA Championships

UALR senior Johnathan Jones qualified for the 2023 NCAA West Preliminary Championships after clearing a school-record 7 feet, 1.5 inches at Ohio Valley Conference Championships in May. (Courtesy of UALR Athletics)
UALR senior Johnathan Jones qualified for the 2023 NCAA West Preliminary Championships after clearing a school-record 7 feet, 1.5 inches at Ohio Valley Conference Championships in May. (Courtesy of UALR Athletics)

University of Arkansas-Little Rock jumps coach Ray Doakes has a simple signal to communicate with high jumper Johnathan Jones during the chaos of a meet.

Doakes only needs to lock eyes with Jones and twist an imaginary dial clockwise, as if cranking up the volume on a radio.

Jones, now a senior, knows it's time to turn things up on the competition.

But if Jones is going to vie for a national championship this evening in Austin, Texas, he'll need to find a new decibel level in his final appearance as a Trojan -- which also happens to be Jones' NCAA Outdoor Championships debut.

"I'm going to have to break a school record, I'm going to have to PR to win this thing," Jones said last week. "Coach [Doakes] always tells me, that's not enough. ... To get those big guys out [of] the way, I'm going to have to do more."

Doing more has been the theme of Jones' career at UALR. After redshirting a covid-shortened 2019-20 season, he earned second-team All-Sun Belt Conference honors during the 2020-21 indoor season, then became the first Trojan to clear seven feet outdoors and advanced to NCAA West Preliminary Round.

He took things a step further last spring, claiming a Sun Belt championship in the high jump with a school-record mark of 7 feet, 1 1/2 inches and earning another trip to prelims -- but the Little Rock native failed to qualify for nationals.

Jones had faith he'd eventually earn that breakthrough and reach the season's ultimate meet. So too did UALR Director of Track & Field J.P. Behnke after he watched Jones clear 6 feet, 9 inches as a high schooler at Little Rock Central despite an approach and technique that he described as "a mess."

What then made this season different? Doakes.

A six-time first-team All-American at the University of Arkansas with a 1995 NCAA Outdoor high jump championship as well as three silver medals in the event (one outdoor, two indoor), Doakes identified a few straightforward technique adjustments that helped Jones limit the painful shin splints which had slowed his progress in past seasons.

"When I first [got here], I think he thought he could do something," Doakes explained. "Now he knows that he can do it, that competence is there."

Jones' high-water mark at Ohio Valley Conference Championships last month (7 feet, 1 1/2 inches) matched his own school record, and by clearing 7 feet, 1/4 inches at NCAA West Prelims, Jones made more UALR history -- he's the first Trojan to advance to nationals in a field event.

Those marks, while impressive, are almost certainly not enough to finish on the podium tonight, let alone win.

Last year's winner, Tejaswin Shankar of Kansas State, cleared 7 feet, 5 1/4 inches. Oklahoma's Vernon Turner -- the NCAA leader this season -- jumped 7 feet, 6 1/2 inches, and 15 of Jones' 23 competitors have set a higher personal best in competition.

But Doakes has seen Jones reach those heights in practice.

"As a high jumper, there's kind of like a sixth sense," Doakes said. "When you run up to [the bar], you know if it's something that you are able to jump over, and he knows that he can jump that high."

Jones admitted last week he found jumping somewhat by happenstance. His mom insisted that he was going to run track, but when Jones refused to run, he discovered he could keep up with -- and eventually beat -- his older brother in the high jump.

Now, he's beating some of the best athletes in the country, and doing so while representing his hometown.

"It's childhood dreams coming to life. I'm able to do it with a 'Little Rock' on my jersey instead of all those big names," Jones said. "No, we're doing it here, I'm doing it in my town, so it means a lot to me to do this and a lot to my friends, family and everybody that believes in me."

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