TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Every year when the collegiate track and field season winds down with the outdoor conference, regional and NCAA championship meets, there’s almost always a big surprise that few saw coming.
This year for, the University of Alabama, that surprise has been sophomore long jumper and Bradwell Institute graduate, Josh McCullan. It wasn’t that he didn’t have the necessary skills or potential, but not a lot was expected in this postseason after the sophomore struggled through the 2014 indoor and outdoor schedules.
His indoor season wrapped up in February with a 10th-place finish in the SEC Championships at Texas A&M, where his best jump of 23 feet, and ½ inches could only be called a disappointment. In the same meet the year before, his mark of 23-8¾ finished ninth.
In the subsequent outdoor opener, the Alabama Relays, he jumped 23-4, which would be his best score of the spring, for ninth place. He was 12th at Crimson Tide Invitational, fourth in the six-team Border Clash, and 10th in the Jace Lacoste Invitational at Mississippi State, where judges only needed 21-3¼ of measuring tape.
“It was frustrating,” McCullan said. “I knew that I had it. I just wasn’t performing up to the level that I knew that I could.”
At least McCullan knew he wasn’t regressing, far from it. Last summer instead of heading home to Hinesville, he stayed on campus to train. Coming off his rookie year he also put in the necessary hours during the fall, which Crimson Tide jumps coach Dick Booth calls “building a better machine.”
“You came in and you were the NASCAR car that finished last,” Booth described about jumping in general. “We’re going to take you back into the shop and when you get done, you’re going to have the horsepower you need to move up.”
Despite the overhaul, McCullan had a blowout. Near the end of the first practice in January, he stepped on tubing, causing his left foot to roll over, damaging the Achilles tendon of his launch foot. “That hampered me somewhat for the indoor season, and then outdoors, I switched legs, I was jumping off my other leg for the majority of the outdoor meets,” McCullan said.
“For SECs, I just decided to go back to what worked, and my Achilles was feeling good.”
McCullan stunned the field at the SEC Outdoor Championships in Lexington, Ky., with a jump of 7.56 meters, or 24-9¾ feet, more than a foot better than his previous best. Not only was it good enough for seventh place, just behind teammate Kamal Fuller (7.57, 24-10), it secured him a spot in the NCAA East Regional in Jacksonville.
There, McCullan knew he was in for another good meet when he cleared 24 feet with his first jump.
“Usually, my first jumps aren’t good at all,” he said. “I have to get into a rhythm. I’m a rhythm jumper.”
McCullan subsequently hit 24-9 with his second jump, or 7.54 meters, which he knew would almost certainly land him in the NCAA Championships June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore.
“It all came together at the right time,” he said. “I definitely expect to jump farther at every meet from here on out.”
To put perspective on how big of a difference the year has been for McCullan, consider Fuller’s trek with the Crimson Tide. The five-time All-American long jumper first landed one of those honors as a freshman.
His 24-5¾ at the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships placed 13th, good enough for second-team All-American status, and his personal best was 25-6¼ at Notre Dame’s Alex Wilson Invitational.
However, it took two years for the Jamaican to top that, with 25-8¾ at the 2013 SEC Indoor Championships. This year the senior had a season best 25-7½ at the Tyson Invitational, but Fuller will be competing in the 4x100-meter relay at the outdoor championships while McCullan will be Alabama’s lone representative in the long jump.
McCullan was ranked last among the competitors heading into the SEC meet, and was 23rd among those at the East Regional.
This time he’s seeded 19th.
“Going into the NCAAs, nobody is really looking for me to show up and make a really big jump to rival really anybody in the top half of that competition, so I’d really say I’m playing with house money,” McCullan said.
“I’m looking to go in there and shock some people.”