MOUNT PLEASANT — He was known as Jonathan Rankins-James during the basketball season.
By the time he started competing in track this spring, his first name had morphed into Jay Jay.
“Some people call me Johnny, too,” he said.
After this weekend, he just may be known as a state champion — against all odds.
The Case High School junior had never competed in track prior to this season and truthfully didn’t have much of an interest. In fact, if JayVian Farr, one of his best friends, hadn’t twisted his arm enough to give it a try, Rankins-James likely would have blissfully been playing basketball on some playground these days.
Instead, he will be a top contender in three events at the WIAA Division 1 Track & Field Championships Friday and Saturday at UW-La Crosse’s Veterans Memorial Stadium. He’s seeded first in the high jump (6-6), third in the triple jump (45-6½) and 11th in the long jump. (21-7).
As a first-time state participant, will Rankins-James have trouble withstanding the pressure? That’s not likely considering the swagger this kid exudes.
“I can probably win the high jump, come in second or third in the triple jump and probably second place in the long,” he said.
Case coach Dennis Gallagher isn’t going to put pressure on Rankins-James by suggesting that kind of a performance is in store. But he does use the adjective “remarkable” when describing Rankins-James’ rapid ascent.
“I’ve seen him in other sports and he’s definitely demonstrated a lot of leadership,” Gallagher said. “So him coming out after I badgered him for two years to do track and to see him excel like this, it’s really remarkable.
“For him to be doing 6-6, 6-7 in the high jump, most people who have done it for four years can’t even hit that mark yet.”
The 6-foot-1½ Rankins-James, a defensive back and kick returner in football and a part-time starter at forward in basketball, discovered before he even got to Case that he had a rare spring in his legs, even if he didn’t intent to use it.
During the summer of 2016, just before his freshman year of high school, he and future Case basketball teammate Sentreal Gilliam were walking through an alley after playing at the Dr. John Bryant Center.
The two broke into a sprint upon seeing a dog coming after them. And then Rankins-James performed his first jump.
“I jumped up on a car when me and my friend got chased by a dog,” he said. “That’s when I first realized I could jump.”
Still, Rankins-James had no interest in track as a freshman and sophomore. Basketball was his sport and that’s what he was hoping to play in college.
Everything changed when Farr finally convinced his friend to give it a try this spring.
“He encouraged me a lot,” Rankins-James said. “He’s been my teammate since freshman year of football and he’s been telling me I should be going out for track because I’ve got the ability. So I came out and did it and he helped me along the way,”
If not for Farr constantly pestering him, would Rankins-James be involved in track now?
“I don’t think I would have,” he said.
But that shouldn’t be construed that Rankins-James is a reluctant track participant. He has been swayed by track so much that he could see himself pursuing that sport — and not basketball — in college.
There’s much business to attend to in high school first. And it starts this weekend, when Rankins-James could complete a remarkable season by standing on the medal podium in La-Crosse.
“I don’t think Jay Jay has ever been intimidated by competition,” Gallagher said. “If you look at how he performed at regionals and sectionals, it’s a great indication because, prior to that, he had a couple of meets where he only went 6-2.
“He probably was a little bit nervous, but he came and performed well. So I’m confident in his ability to perform well at state, as well.”