Raising the Bar

Young Husker High Jumper Keeps Flying Higher and Higher

By Steve Beideck

Husker freshman Jenna Rogers has swept the Big Ten’s indoor and outdoor high jump titles. Her personal best jump heading into the NCAA regionals is 6 feet, 1¼ inches.
Husker freshman Jenna Rogers has swept the Big Ten’s indoor and outdoor high jump titles. Her personal best jump heading into the NCAA regionals is 6 feet, 1¼ inches.

Sometimes PRs don’t come in the biggest meets. Jenna Rogers is just fine with that – at least for now.

The Nebraska freshman high jumper is flying higher and higher, but her best performances haven’t been coming at the biggest meets. Still, Rogers has become the first female Husker in 18 years to win both the indoor and outdoor conference high jump titles.

Rogers completed her Big Ten sweep May 14 by rallying from sixth place to win her first outdoor championship. She was the lone competitor to clear 5 feet, 11½ inches at Minnesota.

That mark was a quarter inch higher than what the Rutherford, New Jersey, native cleared to win the Big Ten indoor title Feb. 25 at the SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio. Winning both competitions made Rogers the first Husker female to do so since Na’Tassia Vice won the Big 12 indoor and outdoor titles in 2004.

Rogers came to Nebraska in 2020 as the owner of the national high school high jump record. After her prep career, she figured she’d stay close to home, maybe go to school at Princeton or Duke, to continue her college career. The year-round warm weather at the University of Arizona also was appealing.
But Jenna’s mother, Lorianne, said she needed to search for a middle ground.

“I was coerced by my mom to take a visit here,” Rogers said. “I was so naive I didn’t know where Nebraska was. She’s from New Jersey but went to college in Minnesota, so she wanted me to look at schools in the Midwest. It took just one day out here, and I knew this was the school for me.”

Lorianne Rogers played volleyball and basketball at Southwest Minnesota, and Rogers’ father, Dennis, played basketball at Trenton State, which became The College of New Jersey in 1996. Rogers said she eventually admitted to her mother that she was right to have her find a Midwestern school.

“She figured I’d like the Midwest,” Rogers said. “Nebraska was stronger than Minnesota in the high jump, and the school is a huge powerhouse for sports, so it became a no-brainer for me once I visited.”

Neither of Rogers’ winning jumps were a career best. The first time she cleared 6-0 as a collegian came indoors at the Feb. 5 Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational in Lincoln before clearing a then-career best 6-¾ one week later at the indoor Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Rogers continued to raise the bar for herself this spring. She started with an outdoor PR of 6-½ at the Florida Relays. Less than a week later, she had a new personal best of 6-1¼ (1.86 meters) at the April 7-8 McDonnel Invitational that still stands heading into the May 25-28 NCAA West Regional in Fayetteville.

The regional will be at the same facility as her 6-1¼ PR – John McDonnell Field at the University of Arkansas.

In the three meets since that PR, Rogers has cleared 6-0 once and 5-11½ twice.

It doesn’t bother Rogers or Nebraska high jump coach Dusty Jonas that record heights aren’t coming in championship meets. The wins and 10 points toward the team totals that go with the victories are more important for Rogers.

“I have the best high jump coach in the nation and great teammates,” Rogers said. “Coach Jonas is an Olympian, so he knows what it’s like and what it takes to get to that level. He’s able to coach me and we’re still able to be friends. It’s nice to have someone there who knows what they’re talking about.
“It’s worked out well for me and my teammates.”

Rogers was one of four Huskers who scored in the high jump for the Huskers at the Big Ten outdoor meet. Madison Yerigan and Riley Masten tied for fifth by clearing 5-9¼, and Brooklyn Miller was seventh at the same height. Mayson Conner completed the same Big Ten indoor-outdoor sweep as Rogers for the men’s team.

There was a bit more drama to Rogers’ win in Minneapolis than usual. Because she missed her first attempt at 5-8 and five other jumpers – including Yerigan and Masten – made it on their first attempts, Rogers was in sixth place when the bar was moved to 5-9¼.

That momentary place in the standings didn’t faze Rogers. The weather was ideal – 70 degrees and no wind – and Rogers was prepared for the moment.

“I had competed against the same people in the winter, so I came in pretty confident,” Rogers said. “I really believe in myself, and it ended up working out in my favor. I muscled the heck out of the jump to make sure I cleared it.

“At one point I was in sixth place, then second place. I wasn’t in the lead until the final bar I could clear. As a jump squad we’ve become really good at the little things. Down to the last steps, Dusty has it down. He has it planned out day by day and we all just trust it.”

Rogers and the rest of the Huskers who have qualified for the NCAA West Regional will head back to Fayetteville, which will determine qualifiers for the June 8-11 NCAA championship meet in Eugene, Oregon.

“The main focus is just to be clean jumping,” Rogers said. “I want to clear every bar first attempt. That would put me in a real good position.”

Going With the Flow

Darius Luff owns the seventh best time in the nation in the 60-meter hurdles.
Darius Luff owns the seventh best time in the nation in the 60-meter hurdles.

Uninterrupted Training Kicks in for Darius Luff

By Steve Beideck • Photos by Scott Bruhn/NU Communications

A return to a consistent training regimen has helped Darius Luff steadily climb Nebraska’s all-time charts in the 60-meter hurdles.

The junior from Lincoln High entered the Feb. 11 Tyson Invitational in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with one of the best times in the nation at 7.70 seconds. By the time the Huskers boarded the bus to return to Lincoln, Luff had jumped to No. 3 all-time with a career-best 7.67.

That time has Luff tied for No. 7 nationally with Jamar Marshall of Arizona State heading into the Big Ten Conference championship meet Feb. 24-26 in Geneva, Ohio.

Luff credited having a full off-season to train and prepare for the 2022 season after the tumultuous times that disrupted the 2021 indoor campaign.

“With COVID, we didn’t get much time to work out leading into indoor,” Luff said. “We kept getting shut down. We’d have two weeks off, then two weeks on. It was crazy. It’s hard to stay in shape and be able to run fast.

“This year we were working out in the summer, then we had a full fall season to train. That training set me up a lot better to run fast early in the season.”

Nebraska assistant coach Dusty Jonas has been working with Luff since he first joined the team after leading the Links to a Class A state championship and runner-up finish in his final two high school seasons. Jonas said the uninterrupted training is paying off just as he hoped it would.

“I’m not surprised he got out of the blocks so fast right away,” Jonas said. “There’s very little that that young man does that surprises me. He was progressing really well through the fall, and his consistency throughout the year was very good.

“Consistent training has been hard to come by in the age of the Corona virus. This season he’s put together some of the best workouts since he’s been here.”

Luff admitted he surprised himself by posting a personal best time in the first meet of the season, the Graduate Classic in Lincoln on Jan. 15.

“I guess I could say it was a surprise to me but normally I run that fast at the start of the season then get into things,” Luff said. “I’ve always expected it of myself. Ideally you’d want to have a PR (personal record) every week, but that’s just not realistic.”

Luff stayed in the 7.7s the rest of the month and admitted he was disappointed with his second place time of 7.82 at the Feb. 5 Frank Sevigne Husker Invitational.

“I didn’t put a complete race together in either the prelims or the finals,” Luff said. “I’d feel worse if I ran a perfect race and didn’t get faster. A complete race in the prelims or finals would have given me a faster time.”

The difference between those two races showed Luff the level of consistency he strives for is still a work in progress.

“I still have a lot of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said. “They were actually different things, something that I’ve struggled with all year. In some races (I get) a great start, then get a little off balance, float a hurdle or two hurdle and not get down as fast as I should.

“Then I won’t get a good start, but once I get over hurdle one, the rest of the race is good. In the prelims I had a good start then didn’t finish as well as I’d like. I didn’t like my start as much in the final. I need to put together a complete race.”

Luff’s father, Scotty, also was a hurdler at Lincoln High and helped introduce him to the sport. He began competing in the USA Track and Field summer program when he was 12. Competing for Peak Performance in Omaha and training in Lincoln, Luff eventually worked his way to national competitions when he was in eighth grade.

“I remember I got second place in the 100-meter hurdles and second in the 200-meter hurdles,” Luff said. “That’s what really motivated me. I knew I was one of the best in Nebraska. It’s a whole different atmosphere for meets out of state, and there I proved to myself I was one of the best in the nation.”

That summer success led Luff to what he said were the best times of his life helping Lincoln High win those two team trophies in his junior and senior seasons.

“Still to this day my experience with high school track was one of the best times in my life,” Luff said. “Just being a part of that team, winning (the state team title) my junior year and getting second my senior year, chasing the state championship as a whole team was special.”

Luff also said working with Jonas and new hurdles coach Brenton Emanuel is making the college experience a memorable one as well.

“Dusty’s been great,” Luff said. “He’s found a good way to keep me motivated. He likes to talk about the other guys I’m racing; he knows how to get me fired up. Knowing he’s been to the Olympics and knows what it takes to get to big meets has been good for me.”

Jonas said he also enjoys working with Luff, learning to push the right buttons at the right time and helping him develop the consistency needed to become one of the nation’s best and, maybe, even the best Nebraska’s ever had.

Jonas said Luff is well on his way.

“Being OK with being pretty good, if you want to be at the top, isn’t good enough. Keeping that edge is important, so you have to poke the bear a little bit,” Jonas said. “He’s got all the tools to be incredibly good. I’ll never say how good because you never know. Don’t want to put a limit on him. With him, the sky’s the limit.”

His coaches believe the sky is the limit for Luff. “I still have a lof of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said.
His coaches believe the sky is the limit for Luff. “I still have a lof of things I need to work on and get better at,” Luff said

Ted’s Takes

Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.
Ted Kirk is a Lincoln-based photographer who has been a photojournalist since 1970. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota, native covered Nebraska Athletics from 1973 through 2018. During that span he covered thousands of Husker Athletic competitions around the United States. His work is being donated to the University of Nebraska Library Photo Archive.
Jim Hartung peforms on the rings during a meet at the Devaney Center during the 1981 season.
2020 03 31 001
Nebraska’s Carl McPipe shoots over Kansas center Paul Mokeski at the Devaney Center during a 62-58 win over the Jayhawks in 1978.

Philosophical Change

Husker Track & Field Focus Is on Winning Big While Going Small

Story by Steve Beideck • Photos by NU Sports Information

Seven coaching changes and a shift in postseason focus will bring a different look to the 2022 Nebraska track and field season.

Gary Pepin is still the leader of both the men’s and women’s programs. The dean of Big Ten track and field coaches is in his 39th season at the helm of the men’s program and 42nd as leader of the women’s program after taking over for Carol Frost following the 1980 season.

Pepin is one of the most successful college coaches in the history of the sport. His Husker teams won three women’s national championships in the 1980s and have a combined 74 conference championships between the Big Eight, Big 12 and Big Ten conferences.

But there hasn’t been much winning lately for the Huskers, and that doesn’t sit well with the man inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

Latimer already owns the school record in the weight throw.
Latimer already owns the school record in the weight throw.

Three assistants were fired and another retired. Pepin said it’s never easy, but sometimes necessary, to make those changes.

“All of them were really good people,” Pepin said. “Most of them were here a long time. Sometimes things get just a little bit stale, and there were some areas where we needed to do a little bit better.

“It’s a tough situation because you like those people and they’re working at what they do. If things aren’t improving, sometimes as a head coach you have to make a change.”

Changes in the coaching staff and his approach to recruiting have reenergized Pepin, who continues to coach the long and triple jumps, since the indoor season began earlier this month.

New throws coach Justin St. Clair coached Olympians at North Dakota State. Two coaches from Eastern Illinois – Brenton Emanuel (sprints, hurdles) and Nikki Larch-Miller (multi-events) – are now on staff.

Former recruiting coordinator Matt Wackerly took over the cross country program and distance running duties following the retirement of Dave Harris. Dusty Jonas is still coaching the high jump and helping with sprints and hurdles.

“You can feel and see the difference in practice with all the groups,” Pepin said. “I can’t tell you quite why, but it’s so obvious that everybody has just stepped it up quite a bit and they’re having fun at the same time. A lot of the new personalities have blended well. Not only the athletes and the coaches, but also the staff.

Talley has two wins this season in the weight throw.
Talley has two wins this season in the weight throw.

“Everybody is working hard and having a lot of fun together. Maybe some of it is a younger staff. Everything here is new and exciting. There’s a lot of potential in some of these new people we’ve brought in who we believe will achieve at a higher level.”

With the international approach to recruiting still in place and some of the new coaches never having been at a Power Five conference school, selling athletes on Nebraska is exciting again.

Pepin said this and future Husker rosters, both for the men and women, will be smaller because the focus is turning to getting more elite athletes into the program who can score points at the national championship meets.

“Our philosophy has changed,” Pepin said. “Maybe until a couple of years ago we tried to have a complete team. We were very competitive in dual meets, and we’ve always had one of the best teams in the national dual meet rankings. There’s an enormous difference trying to win a conference meet as opposed to scoring high at nationals.

“If you’re winning that meet, you’ll have a chance to score some points. But there have been programs like Texas-El Paso that have won national championships, but they couldn’t win their conference.”

Pursuit of conference championships in the Big Ten era is different than the Big Eight and Big 12 days. Especially with indoor meets, there’s rarely a chance for the Huskers to see their conference rivals before the Big Ten meet at the end of February.

There were plenty of chances for the Huskers to size up their Big Eight and Big 12 foes because they would come to meets in Lincoln because the Devaney Center has one of the nation’s best hydraulic-banked tracks.

The Big Ten also has become much more competitive than when the Huskers first joined for the 2012 indoor and outdoor seasons. Yet there’s still plenty of competition in the Midwest where Pepin said the Huskers don’t have to travel to Michigan or Penn State.

“It wasn’t as tough as it is right now,” Pepin said. “The conference is so much better. There are new coaches, schools have new facilities, so they don’t have to travel as much to find good competition.”

Pepin said the ideal roster sizes at this point are roughly 50 men and 60 women. Smaller numbers mean more time for coaches to spend with athletes individually.

“We want people out there by the end of their freshman year who can make it to the conference meet,” Pepin said. “It will give all our coaches more time with the higher-level athletes. We’re putting more emphasis now on nationals. It takes time to get them up there.

“When we’re looking for kids at that level, they have to be good enough to get into the meet. Getting people in who are immediately at the top of the conference means having more people scoring at the national meet.”

The build up of national-level talent already is underway with Nebraska’s throwers and jumpers.

“In the field events, we’re pretty doggone good,” Pepin said. “On the men’s side in the field events we don’t have many holes. The women’s side it’s pretty much the same except for maybe the pole vault. We’re working to get more high-level people on the track.”

Alex Talley and Maxwell Otterdahl already have cracked the Huskers’ all-time charts in the weight throw and shot put since transferring from North Dakota State. Kansas State transfer Taylor Latimer set a school record in the weight throw in her first meet as a Husker Jan. 15 at the Graduate Classic.