By the time Nick Ross took the first of his 13 strides toward the high jump pit Saturday night at Roy P. Drachman Stadium, it was almost 9:30.
Except for some rhythmic hand-clapping from what remained of the Senior Night crowd, the stadium was still. Almost nobody understood the magnitude of those 13 steps.
The bar was set at 7 feet 6½ inches. No one in University of Arizona history had ever jumped that high outdoors, and especially not in Tucson. Not Olympic silver medalist Ed Caruthers. Not school record-holder James Frazier.
Ross had been in his Arizona Wildcat gear for almost six hours, arriving early for the annual Double Dual meet against ASU and NAU. At 5 o’clock, he began long jump competition, in which he would finish second, at 24-4.
At 7, Ross began the triple jump. He won it, reaching 51-1.
At 8:30, UA jumps coach Sheldon Blockburger reminded Ross one last time that he was tied for the second best outdoor jump in school history, 7-6. Wouldn’t it be nice to get the record at home, on Senior Night, with your parents in the bleachers?
“I think Nick was sick of me teasing him about being No. 2,” said Blockburger.
Ross began high jumping for Arizona in the fall of 2009. The California prep champ from Vista Murrieta High School had chosen the UA over scholarship offers from Kentucky and Louisville.
He won the 2011 and 2012 Pac-12 championship and was the conference’s male Field Athlete of the Year. He was the NCAA indoor champion in 2012. He also had four surgeries in five years, forcing him to redshirt in 2012-13.
“I’ve been everywhere from rock bottom to sky high,” he said.
Sky high? At the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Ross finished third with a personal best 7-5¾. The top three Americans historically make the Olympic team.
Rock bottom: Ross was 1¼ inches from the Olympic-qualifying standard of 7-7. Only two American male high jumpers went to England.
This year, attempting to win his second NCAA indoor championship, Ross was decked by, of all things, chicken pox.
“It set us back about three weeks,” said Blockburger. “Nick never quite recovered in time.”
Realistically, Ross shouldn’t have had his best stuff at 9:30. Saturday night. Most elite high jumpers wouldn’t consider compromising their strength by spending three hours long jumping and triple jumping.
It like expecting a starting pitcher to have his best stuff in the 13th inning.
But because it was the UA-ASU meet, Ross was eager to get as many points against the Sun Devils as possible. The team would come first. His last shot at the school record, on home turf, would literally come last.
Setting an outdoor men’s record at Drachman Stadium is about the rarest thing in Arizona sports. In the 26 conventional outdoor track and field events, only one of those standing — Wardell Gilbreath’s 20.27 sprint in the 200 meters, 1976 — was set in Tucson.
All of the rest were established in such places at Norway, France, New York, England, Arkansas, even Tempe.
Frazier set the school’s outdoor high jump (7-6) record in Tucson on May 10, 1980. It held for so long that Frazier got to know Ross two years ago, when he accompanied his son, Noel Frazier, on a recruiting visit to Tucson.
How’s this for irony: Arizona didn’t get Frazier’s son (Noel is a Cal Bears high jumper) but on Saturday night, Ross finally got Frazier’s record.
He cleared the bar at 7-6½, running immediately toward his teammates and coaches, pumping his fists. It is the No. 1 jump in the United States this year and No. 5 in the world.
“Nick got the record without any rest; we lifted hard and ran hard all week,” said Blockburger. “I think when he’s properly rested, he can go 7-7 at the Pac-12 meet at Washington State next week. That’s a minimal mark. He’s definitely got a 7-8 in him. Put your money on him.”
Ross is six or seven years from his athletic peak. His immediate goal is to break the Pac-12 record (7-7¼) first established by UCLA’s Del Davis in 1982. It might take that much just to win the NCAA title this year; Ole Miss jumper Ricky Robertson has cleared 7-6, and Texas Tech’s JaCorian Duffield has gone 7-5¼.
Saturday, four hours before Ross’ record jump, UA track coach Fred Harvey stopped competition between ASU and NAU and staged a Senior Night celebration at Drachman Stadium.
Ross moved away from the long jump pit, accepted his award and went back to work.
His best was yet to come.