Early on the morning of this year’s Times-News Invitational track and field meet, Jake Justice wandered casually, as he usually does, over to an observer standing near the triple jump pit.
“Hey, I’m going to try the triple jump,” Justice said. “I haven’t done that since middle school, I think.”
He paused for a moment.
“I think I can get 42,” he said, and wandered off to the head of the runway.
42, as in 42 feet, that plus five inches a school record set before Justice was born.
He did not reach 42 feet that day. He did in his next meet, soaring 42-6 at the Western Highlands Conference championships.
Casually, as he usually does.
It’s no leap to say that Jake Justice is the best field athlete in Polk County High School history.
The resume is certainly there:
- Four state championships, two outdoor and two indoor, in the pole vault. Regis Bittle is the only other PCHS athlete to win an individual state title in a field event, doing so in 2007-2008 in the shot put. Those four state titles are second-most for any PCHS athlete behind the six track titles collected in 2008-2009 by John Spencer Wolfe.
- A second and a sixth in the outdoor state championships in the long jump, plus three third-place finishes (two outdoor, one indoor) in the pole vault, for a total of eight state medals.
- Four school records in field events – indoor pole vault and outdoor pole vault, long jump and triple jump. He is also part of the school record holder in the 4×200-meter relay.
- State 1A record holder both indoors and outdoors in the pole vault.
- Part of the only boys team state championship in Polk County history
No less an expert than Polk County track and field coach Alan Peoples, who’s seen every Wolverine ever as the lone boys coach in school history, thought it over and declared, “I’d say John Spencer Wolfe and Jake are probably the best we’ve ever had.”
Watch Justice at practice or at a meet, and such lofty praise would seem to matter little. Justice is rarely without a smile, and his easygoing manner has led close friends to often refer to him as “Gomer.”
The facade, though, masks a healthy competitive streak. Polk County pole vault coach Henry Weaver, who’s spent as much time with Justice the past four years as anyone, used to smile inwardly when teammates and friends would tell Justice he couldn’t reach a certain height or not achieve some something, knowing the fuel those remarks would provide. Rarely in four years did Justice set a target and not surpass it.
“The feeling of success and just pushing myself and saying I can be this good and I can do these things,” Justice said of his motivations. “It’s just I have a lot of confidence in myself.
“I like the feeling of being the best. . . You’re leaving a legacy because everybody is going to remember that you’ve been at the top and that you are the top and that you’ve won all these state championships. When we go to track practice and Coach Peoples talks about people, he talks about the legends, like Jenny Wolfe, who used to coach here, and Karen Godlock, and all of them have all these eight, seven, six state titles to their names. He’s like, you’ve got to live up to be them.”
That Justice has, and he’s done so in a manner that also inspired respect from fellow competitors. Competing in the long jump at this year’s state 1A track and field championships, Justice didn’t reach the pole vault event, which began at roughly the same time, until his fellow competitiors had already finished their attempts. As Justice warmed up, then completed his first successful vault to claim the state title, none of those competitors left, each choosing to stay and watch and even cheer on Justice as he set a new state mark in the event.
That’s what a legacy looks like.
“It won’t hit me until later down in the years, but right now, I’m just grateful for what I have and what I’ve accomplished and what’s coming up next and for my future,” Justice said. “It’s definitely not hitting me right now. It will definitely hit in a couple of years, I think.”
At the same Times-News meet, Justice also competed in the 300-meter hurdles for the first time. His finishing time was less than a second away from the school record. He ran well enough in the event at the 1A West Regional to qualify for the state meet, where he placed ninth in his fourth official try at the event.
“I had never seen a hurdle before this year,” Justice said. “I think if I’d had more time, I had (the school record). I only hurdled for three weeks.”
“He hurdled for five minutes and almost set the school record,” a Polk County coach said. “I think he could set a record in any event he tried.”
Know who never wanted to be a pole vaulter?
The fun part about Justice’s ride into the record books is that he wanted it to happen anywhere but the vault pit.
Enter his mom, Jessica.
“It was definitely my mom,” Justice said of how he became a pole vaulter. “I used to do gymnastics when I was little, so she’d always say when I got to high school, she wanted me to be a pole vaulter, but I always said no.
“So I guess the third day I tried, she came to practice and was like, ‘what do the coaches think? I want my son to pole vault.’ And so she came and then that’s when I started pole vaulting. Fourth day of practice she kind of persuaded me into pole vaulting.”
As might be expected, given the path of introduction, it was not love at first jump.
“I did not like it at first. It was so difficult,” Justice said. “I would always plant and it would just not work. It was just so hard getting the technique down and running with an object and full speed down the runway. It was really hard.
“It probably changed my freshman year. Outdoor season was when I really peaked and got comfortable with the pole and started planting. So I went from something like 9-6 indoors to 12-6 in outdoor. I had a huge growth spurt as well.”
That rapid improvement led Weaver to sit down his young vaulter and urge him to become serious about the sport. “He said, these next couple of years you’re going to be second or you’re going to be first in the state, and then that’s when he told me about breaking the state records. He said I’m already three feet away and I’ve got three more years. And he said, you can put three feet in three years.”
And so the duo began working toward that goal. They have been an almost inseparable pair at Polk County track meets, not to mention afternoon workouts that often stretched to near-evenings in G.M. Tennant Stadium. Weaver ran the pole vault competition not only at Polk County meets, but regional and state meets as well. He was there to greet Justice after every state championship, after every state record.
“It’s like a father-son role,” Justice said, “He’s like another dad to me. He’s been there since my freshman year through high school. He’s just at every meet. He’s been a great role model.”
Justice has one more competition to complete his high school career, the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro on June 13-16. It will be in the same Aggie Stadium where he won both of his state championships, perhaps no more fitting way to bid farewell to prep competition.
Then it’s off to East Carolina University, where new challenges await. Justice has already fashioned a new set of goals.
“I want to be a 17-foot vaulter by the time I’m done with college,” he said. “And I want to make it to the Pan-Am Games my freshman year. You can only do it as a freshman, and I think it’s like 16-4 or something like that (the mark to clear to qualify).
“That’s what I want to do for my freshman year. I want to go the Pan-Am Games.”
Shooting for new heights.
Casually, as he usually does.