By CONOR NICHOLL
Otis-Bison High School junior Jordan Hoffman was tired during his first 400-meter dash of the year at the April 5 La Crosse Invitational. During the run, Hoffman kept telling himself "don't quit, don't stop." Hoffman stayed with it and crossed the finish line in 53.51 seconds. He defeated La Crosse senior Levi Morss, the defending state runner-up in the 100, 200 and 400, by .04 seconds. As well, Hoffman ran a 11.92 in the 100 and a 24.02 in the 200, marks that Morss narrowly beat.
"If you can compete with Morss, you know that you are doing really well," Otis-Bison coach Travis Starr said.
Hoffman's performance started arguably the most surprising year by any area athlete. Helped by his "don't quit" mantra, an improved mindset and strength, Hoffman could become the first Cougar to win a state track title in Starr's eight years. Hoffman suffered some bad shin splints in basketball that has curtailed his training and kept him from a fourth event.
Still, the junior has surprised himself, broken all three school records in the sprinting events and is ranked second in the 100, third in the 200 and first in the 400 entering this weekend's Class 1A state meet at Wichita State University's Cessna Stadium.
"I ran decent last year, but I was nowhere near this," Hoffman said. "...It just came out of nowhere."
Last year, Hoffman ran 11.6 in the 100, 24 seconds in the 200 and 53.5 in the 400. This year, he posted a 10.79 in the 100, 21.89 in the 200. At the Fort Hays regional last Friday, Hoffman broke the school record in the 400 in 49.78 and beat Morss in a photo finish.
"I have never quit," Hoffman said. "I've worked as hard as I could. Last year, I had a little bit of a mental weakness, but this year I have just really kept it up."
Hoffman and Morss, who also won the long jump last spring, have met three times this year. At La Crosse, Morss won the 100 and 200, while Hoffman collected first in the 400. At the Central Prairie League meet two weeks ago, Morss won the 100 by .01 seconds and the 200 by .37 seconds. Hoffman took the 400.
At regionals, Hoffman won the 100 and 400 and Morss false started in the 200.
"I don't mean to sound mean, but after I saw Levi walk off, I got a sense of relief that I have got a better shot at winning," Hoffman said.
In the 400, Morss started quickly and led for most of the race, but Hoffman caught him at the end.
"Levi is a kid who has got to make other people catch him," La Crosse coach Jon Webster said. "He is not really a kid that does a good job of coming from behind as of late. He has got to get out and go, and that's his race. It's a good battle for those two kids, and the 100 is a good battle, too. They have been battling all year, and I look forward to seeing it one more time."
Hoffman, now weighing around 190 pounds, has put on about 20 pounds from last year. He has added 50 pounds to his clean and squat and around 40 pounds to his bench press. Hoffman finished second in state powerlifting in the clean earlier this spring. Plus, Starr has noticed Hoffman's improved mentality in all areas, including school and sports.
"Almost night and day," Starr said.
In 2012, Hoffman had a strong start during the season, but couldn't maintain throughout the year.
"We started losing stamina," Starr said. "We weren't mature enough to handle that."
Plus, Hoffman couldn't finish the 400 last year. Hoffman would run the first 300 as fast as possible. Then, Starr said Hoffman would "die on the last 100." Now, Hoffman has the mature strength to handle the finish, including against Morss last Friday.
"He is pacing himself a lot better," Starr said. "He has one heck of a kick that allowed him to come back and do what he did."