RACINE —On the afternoon of June 5, 1981, a high jumper who eschewed practice because of tendinitis in his knees was poised for his moment at Mansfield Stadium in Madison.
After placing second in the high jump in the WIAA Division 1 Track & Field Championships a year earlier with a mark of 6-foot-8, Horlick High School senior Aleks Cukic matched that effort. Only this time, it was good enough for a state championship.
A Racine County athlete has yet to win a state championship in that event again. The highest finish since then was back-to-back runner-up finishes by Park’s Nick Davis, now women’s track coach at UW-La Crosse, in 1999 and 2000.
Going on 38 years later after going out on top, Cukic hopes to be back at the state meet, this time at Memorial Stadium at UW-La Crosse. As the high jump coach at Horlick, he has helped oversee a renaissance with high jumpers in the county who reach the medal stand at La Crosse.
Without the benefit of warm weather that enhances performances, four county high jumpers are tied for the fourth-best outdoor high jump in the state this season at 6-4. They are Horlick’s Darion Folsom, Case’s Jay Jay Rankins-James and Greg Jenkins and Park’s Isaiah Martin, who led the high jump competition at state last season before tying for sixth.
Park’s Nobal Days, who is still rounding into form after not competing as a junior, is someone else who could be a factor. This high jump revival in the county even extends beyond the public schools with Prairie’s Jack Polzin, who won at 6-0 at the Metro Classic Conference meet Wednesday at Greendale.
What’s going on here?
“Two thousand and nineteen is probably the strongest year I’ve seen in Racine since 1980, where there were multiple 6-4 to 6-8 jumpers in the city and in the old South Shore Conference,” Cukic said. “Now we have two jumpers at Case, one jumper at Park and Darrion Folsom here at Horlick who have all gone 6-4.
“Nobal Days is sort of a wildcard. He went 6-4 as a sophomore and is kind of getting his footing back after not jumping last year. And there’s a kid in Kenosha (Indian Trail’s T.J. Fullilove), who also is jumping 6-4.
“This means, out of of this sectional, only three of those guys advance (to state).”
That will start to be played out Monday, when Case, Horlick and Park high jumpers battle it out at the Union Grove Regional. The top four in each event qualifies for the Greenfield Sectional Thursday. From there, the top three qualify for the state meet May 31-June 1.
“We’re all friends, but once we get on the high jump, it’s all about competition, who’s going to be the best and who wants it more,” Folsom said.
For Case coach Dennis Gallagher, what we’re about to see is friendly competition at its finest.
“I think the resurgence of high jump in Racine has a lot to do with the spirit of competition,” he said. “Greg, Isaiah, Nobal and Darrion have been competing against each other for at least two or three years and there has been no clear winner yet. Then you throw Jay Jay in the mix and now you have a real heated competition for state qualifiers.
“Each of these guys are experienced athletes with the will to win. They all want to be the best and the success of one another only drives them further. This is a great friendly city rivalry that has provided a lot of entertainment this season.”
Just who are those kids who could be wearing a state medal within the next two weeks? Here’s a closer look:
At just 5-9, Folsom doesn’t necessarily look the part of a potential state-medalist. What the senior does have are powerful legs he developed as a football player plus the expertise that has been handed down to him from Cukic.
“It’s difficult,” Folsom concedes. “But when I work out, I work on my legs and I make sure I get them strong. More strength in your legs means more height when you jump.”
Folsom has progressed from 5-4 as a freshman to 6-4 twice this season. What does he see as a realistic goal for himself?
“I hope I get 6-6 and hopefully make it to state and place there and get a nice little medal,” he said.
Jay Jay Rankins-James
Of all the county jumpers, Rankins-James may be the most intriguing. After concentrating on basketball in high school, he tried track for the first time as a junior this spring and jumped 6-7 in his first event — an indoor meet at UW-Parkside in March.
He also went 6-6 that day, giving him the second- and third-best high jumps in the state this season. Rankins-James has a best effort of 6-4 during the outdoor season.
“I had the ability to do it and I had the motivation,” Rankins-James said of giving track a try. “Everybody wanted me to come out and do it, so I came out and did it.”
With warm weather on the way after a chilly spring, what could that mean to Rankins-James?
“I’d probably say I could jump 6-9 or 6-10, if I really try hard to do it,” he said.
This senior has an academic look about him with his glasses. And he walks the walk with a 3.2-grade point average and a goal to pursue a business career at Viterbo University in La Crosse. But Jenkins has one order of business in La Crosse he hopes to take care of before that.
“I want to make it to state, obviously,” he said. “But I also want a podium. I want to medal at state.”
Jenkins, whose father, Maurice, also competed in the high jump in high school, has achieved a steady progression, with best efforts of 5-2 as a freshman, 5-8 as a sophomore, 6-1 as a junior and 6-4 this season.
To say the least, he has paid the price.
“We have summer workouts here and me and a friend will go by the lake and run hills and we’ll do anything on the track, even when nobody’s watching,” Jenkins said. “And we weight lift every single day.”
Martin was leading the high jump competition at state last year but eventually settled for sixth because of his misses. Still, he’s the only county high jumper back with a medal.
With a best jump of 6-5 (at the Southeast Conference Relays in 2018) and his state experience from last season, Martin feels he’s in a good position.
“I was coming off an injury last year, so I just wanted to go to the state meet,” he said. “But then I medaled. I worked really hard to get to that point, so this year, I know I have to come harder with my approach. Now I know what I have to do to get to that point.”
Meanwhile, don’t discount Days. Three years ago, his brother, Kaj, was the top-ranked high jumper in the state, but had an off day and didn’t qualify out of the sectional. How much of a factor could the 6-9 Nobal Days be?
“It’s been kind of a rusty year, but, hopefully, something can swing around and change,” he said. “If nothing happens, it’s still been fun these last three or four years being around the track program.”
For longtime Park coach Glenn Schultz, is’s going to be a thrilling last two weeks of the season.
“There’s nobody in the state where you say, ‘Here, give that guy the medal,’ “ he said. “Anyone getting our of our sectional has a great shot at a medal and maybe even have a crack at winning if they just hit it on the right day.
“If you know you can go 6-4 with no misses, you’re probably going to get a medal. If you can get 6-6 or 6-7, you’ve got a crack at winning it.”