Tiger track continues winning tradition
It might have turned out to be an auspicious decision for Fort Hays State University coaches to drive, rather than fly, their team to the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Allendale, Mich., the last week of May.
The Tigers might have had to pay extra on a return flight to bring home all their hardware.
FHSU athletes placed in the top eight of five different events, earning first-team, All-America status – and the trophies that accompany that honor. Because two of those events were relays, Fort Hays State brought home 10 trophies in all. Three more Tigers finished ninth through 12th in their events and were named second-team All-Americans. In all, FHSU took 14 competitors to the 2021 season finale, and 13 of those earned either first-team or second-team All-America recognition.
The Tigers returned home with another national champion – Ryan Stanley in the pole vault. That marks Fort Hays State’s fifth national champ since 2017.
Some point to a long-standing tradition to explain the recent success for the Tiger track and field program. Brett Meyer, a former national champion for the Tigers, calls it consistency, for which he credits Jason McCullough, head coach of both the men’s and women’s programs.
Meyer, now a graduate assistant coach for the Tigers, was a five-time All-American during his college days at FHSU. Meyer won the national title in the 1,500-meter run his senior year in 2019 and is currently attempting to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials. It was McCullough who encouraged Meyer, whose longest distance in high school track was 800 meters, to step out of his comfort zone and run the 1,500 meters.
Meyer decided to give it a try. Two years later, he won a national championship and is now chasing a dream of qualifying for the Trials.
“Coach McCullough stresses to us that we have to be consistent over a period of time, that we aren’t going to be an All-American as a freshman or sophomore,” he said. “You have to buy into the program and believe in the consistency part - continue to work hard and be patient. Once you figure that out, it really motivates you.”
The Tigers’ newest national champion agrees. After placing fourth at the national indoor meet in February, Ryan Stanley had trouble getting his steps down during the outdoor season. He no-heighted at four meets before clearing the national-qualifying standard at the final outdoor meet of the regular season. He then went on to break his own school record at nationals with his winning height of 17 feet, 2.75 inches.
“I knew I had one of the better jumps in Division II,” Stanley said, “so every time after I no-heighted, I just had to pick myself back up and go back to work, figuring out my steps. I just had to keep in mind to stay the course.”
Trever Medina believes strong team chemistry also contributes to the Tigers’ success.
“It’s like a family, and we all want each other to succeed,” said Medina, one of the Tigers’ top middle-distance runners, who grew up in the small western Kansas town of Weskan. “We all win together and believe in each other. It’s good to have everyone pulling in the same direction.”
McCullough goes back to his college career when talking about the consistency – and tradition – of Tiger success. A former All-American in cross country, McCullough ran for Jim Krob, who coached at FHSU for 17 years before retiring in 2005. McCullough took over the cross-country program when Krob retired while also serving as an assistant track coach under Dennis Weber. When Weber retired in 2017, McCullough became head coach of both programs.
Krob, who lives in Hays and still follows the Tigers closely, knew the program was in good hands when McCullough moved into the head coaching ranks, first for the cross-country program, then for track and field as well. Krob has known McCullough since he came to FHSU on a wrestling scholarship back in 1994 and walked onto the cross-country team.
“I remember him telling me he wanted to run cross country, and I thought, ‘What a find,’” Krob said. “He was really focused and determined back then, and he hasn’t changed one bit. He knows his athletes and knows what it takes to succeed.”
McCullough indeed does have the same philosophy for his teams as he did as an athlete.
“Most of the athletes at this level take a little more time to develop,” he said. “In D-II we’re not getting the high school All-Americans. For the most part, we get western Kansas athletes, and they have to put in that time and effort. I was not that good when I started. It took a lot of time and effort. That’s how you build a winning program – to have your athletes continually improve.”
Helping accomplish those goals is a coaching staff second to none, McCullough says. The Tiger staff includes six assistants, including Meyer, who excel in their specialties.
“I give the assistants a lot of autotomy with their decisions and training when it comes to competition,” McCullough said. “They have a lot of responsibility when it comes to developing different athletes. You put that all together, and it provides good opportunities for the athletes to showcase their talents.”
While qualifying for – and placing at – nationals is the ultimate goal of most athletes, McCullough said his rewards as a coach go way beyond trophies.
“It might be someone making All-American, or it might be an athlete who improves enough to make the conference meet,” he said. “My joy as a coach is to see people improve and enjoy what they are doing.”