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State college men's athlete of year: After nearly giving up on track, Reitzell finds a home at Midland and two national titles
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STATE COLLEGE MEN'S ATHLETE OF YEAR

State college men's athlete of year: After nearly giving up on track, Reitzell finds a home at Midland and two national titles

From the The centerpiece: The stories that have highlighted the Journal Star's sports sections in July series
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Shandon Reitzell

In his first year at Midland, Shandon Reitzell swept the indoor and outdoor NAIA national championships in the high jump.

Shandon Reitzell was primed for a big meet.

The Midland freshman was feeling good in warmups at the NAIA indoor track and field championships. His jumps felt consistent.

The first attempt felt good. The second one ... oh, oh.

After two attempts into his quest for a national title in high jump, Reitzell felt pain in his leg. He had tweaked a tendon in his knee.

He could have stopped, dropped out of the competition and begin getting healthy for the outdoor season. Instead, Reitzell kept going, and on a bad wheel, jumped his way to a national championship.

Being pushed by great competition helped block out the pain, Reitzell said. And adrenaline. Definitely adrenaline.

What transpired nearly 16 months earlier, when Reitzell lost an opportunity to compete after his college closed its doors, maybe helped spark his fire, too.

Reitzell pulled an impressive sweep. After winning an indoor national championship, he added an NAIA outdoor title, as well.

Not bad for an athlete who never qualified for a state meet in high school, and considered saying goodbye to track a little more than a year ago.

"It means everything," said Reitzell, who is the Journal Star's 2021 state college men's athlete of the year. "This is what I worked for for a long time, and it's only a small goal that I have achieved thus far."

Reitzell, who is from Houston, began his collegiate career at Cincinnati Christian University, but his time there was short-lived. In October of 2019, the small private school announced it was closing its doors after the fall semester.

Reitzell never got a chance to jump there.

Schools from around the country began sending emails to Reitzell, but he wasn't in the mood to read them. He considered heading back to Houston for good, leaving school and track behind.

But unlike many other schools, Midland coach Daniel Gerber waited to reach out to Reitzell. He fired off an email.

Call it good timing.

"He just happened to open ours just by chance," Midland assistant track coach Joel Leindecker said.

Said Reitzell, "I saw Midland and gave Coach Gerber a call and it just went up from there. I didn't know anything about the school before I enrolled."

In fact, Reitzell booked his flight ticket to Nebraska before enrolling in classes. Once he got to campus, Leindecker, who coaches the high jumpers, saw a talented athlete ready to immediately help the Warriors.

"When he leaves the ground, he explodes off the ground," Leindecker said. "You can tell that he had that ability to jump."

In his first indoor meet at Midland, his first competition since 2019 when in high school, Reitzell cleared 6 feet, 9¾ inches. He went over 7 feet in the next meet, and confidence began to build and build.

Reitzell didn't miss a beat, even when he injured his leg at the NAIA indoor championships in Brookings, South Dakota.

"That day, that competition, that environment, I was super-consistent and just rolled through and I managed to win," he said.

The injury, however, did have an effect on Reitzell's performances during the early part of the outdoor season. He was hitting 6-8 but couldn't much higher.

But Reitzell found his groove again, starting at the Drake Relays where he cleared 6-11 competing against some of the country's best. A Great Plains Athletic Conference championship followed, and then the Texas native popped a 7-2¼ at nationals to win his second national championship in less than three months. Reitzell's winning leap on a hot day in Gulf Shores, Alabama, was the highest mark at NAIA nationals since 2008.

"I did not think I had that in me," he said. "I think what really helped though was having family there. My family lives in Houston and me being in Nebraska they couldn't watch as much, and they hadn't watched me jump since 2019, so that was a huge plus. I wanted to impress them, obviously."

The bigger the meet, the better Reitzell performed, Leindecker said.

"It's just amazing to watch him," the coach said. "Once the pressure is on and he knows he has to perform, he's always ready to do it. He's a special athlete in that regard."

So how does a higher jumper top winning two national championships as a freshman?

As Reitzell sees it, the sweep marks only a small chapter of his track career.

"I want to go to the Olympic Trials, I want to go to Paris (for the 2024 Summer Olympics), I want to take my mom and family to Paris, so that's another huge goal that I have," Reitzell said.

Reitzell was only one centimeter short of hitting the qualifying mark for the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Oregon, and he was one the country's top collegiate jumpers regardless of division. His mark at nationals ranked 24th in the country and 132nd in the world.

Even during the Olympic Trials this year, Reitzell and Leindecker were texting back and forth as they watched the competition.

"He's paying attention," Leindcker said. "He knows who got ahead of him, he knows what it's going to take to get there. He's capable of doing it and I don't see any reason why he would lose that motivation he has."

Reach Clark Grell at 402-473-2639 or cgrell@journalstar.com. On Twitter at @LJSSportsGrell.

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