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PREP NOTEBOOK: High hopes before Ducking out early

With college plans already solidified after signing scholarships to one of the nation’s top track and field programs in the University of Oregon, this spring was to be epic for North Medford’s Jaida Ross and Ashland’s EJ Holland.

Minus the stress of finding their next home, each felt free to throw caution to the wind in pursuit of what they hoped would become historic senior campaigns.

State championships have always been a goal, and typically an ultimate result, for the likes of Ross and Holland.

What they were chasing this spring, however, went well beyond just a spot on top of the winner’s podium.

“I expected great things from them this year,” said Ashland High track and field coach Hans Voskes, who also put Boise State-bound runner Arlo Davis in the company of Holland and Ross. “Expecting is not even the word, it was automatic. They were running so well as seniors and to me it was almost an automatic, very much like Jaida on (son Piet Voskes’ North Medford) team.”

“They were just going to do it and it was going to be in impressive fashion,” added Voskes. “They’re all just such outstanding track athletes, I have no doubt it was going to be a memorable final season for each of them.”

Ross and Holland each said Monday that state records were their driving points this spring, and that’s what makes it all that much more disappointing these days.

“I was going to go after a couple state records and just run my heart out the whole spring and be able to have some fun with it along the way,” said the 18-year-old Holland, who already owns the Class 5A state meet records in the 1,500 and 3,000-meter runs. “I was really bummed when they canceled the season.”

Ross had similarly set everything up for a dynamite spring to potentially become the first four-time female state champion at North Medford High. Halley Folsom, who graduated in 2015, finished with three state titles as the only other female champion in North history.

With Class 6A shot put titles as a freshman and junior, Ross was the favorite in that event this year and she had made strides in the discus this offseason after placing third at state the past two years.

The 5-foot-10 standout owns school records in each event, with her heave of 48 feet, 5 inches in the shot put standing as one of the top marks in the nation last year. Her top throw in the discus (147-81/2) was also produced last year.

“I was pretty eager for this season,” said the 18-year-old Ross. “I really wanted to do my best and give my all for my coaches and everyone else in my last year. My goal was 52 (feet) in the shot and 160 in the disc and I was kind of working my way up to those numbers. It was definitely a reach but one that I also thought was attainable because I really wanted to get both of those state titles.”

The state and 6A record in the shot put of 49-8 was set by Stephanie Horton of Tigard in 2005, while Sherwood’s Shelby Moran holds the state and 6A records in the discus at 165-6 (set in 2018).

With another summer spent at the Ironwood Throws Camp in Idaho and a return to the basketball court this winter for Ross to enhance her explosive abilities as a rotational thrower, Black Tornado coach Piet Voskes said that she had “primed the pump” for a record-smashing spring.

“Her attitude was primed for the idea that I’m going to go out with a senior year to remember, and that included the discus as well as the shot, and she had done everything in the offseason to make that happen,” said Voskes.

“Based on what we saw if you use the first three weeks of practice as a litmus test,” he added, “her first three weeks were better this year than any surge of a season she’d previously had. She was healthy and she was highly motivated, and now it’s all just an element of what could have been.”

It’s that “what could have been” sensation that sticks with Holland, who earned his second straight 5A individual cross country title this past fall in a sizzling state-record time of 14 minutes, 30.4 seconds.

The 6-foot-3 runner blistered the Mt. Hood Community College setup last year to set 5A records in winning the 1,500 in 3:51.92 and the 3,000 in 8:13.10. The all-time marks belong to Central Catholic’s Galen Rupp (3:49.76) in the 1,500 — yes, that Galen Rupp of Olympic fame — and Canby’s Eric Logsdon (8:10.66) in the 3,000.

This spring was to include Holland’s bid to dip well below his personal-best of 3:46 in the 1,500 — somewhere in the 3:38 range — and also throw a surprise to the state by moving from the 3,000 to the 800 in order to better prepare him for his future career as a Duck.

“I have the cross country state records but I was hoping to go after the 1,500 state record and see how fast I could get in the 800 as well and go after that 1:50 barrier,” said Holland. “That’s something I’ve kind of wanted to do ever since I was a freshman, so I’m pretty bummed because I definitely thought I was in the shape to do it.”

For reference, the 800 state record of 1:50.60 was set by Lake Oswego’s Elijah Greer in 2008.

“I wanted to step down and kind of do something that was a little bit out of my comfort zone,” said Holland, who has only run a handful of 800s in his time at Ashland (1:53.84 PR). “At state I was hoping to not go super hard in the 1,500 and kind of save some energy and then just go all out in the 800 and really just blow the doors off and run a fast time. I really wanted to see if I could get into that 1:49 range.”

Even with his training taking a hit due to the coronavirus pandemic, Holland recently set a 10K PR of 31:50 en route to a winning time of 52:51 in the 10-mile virtual Pear Blossom Run in April.

When he lost a chance to compete at the U20 U.S. Championships later this summer due to its cancellation, Holland regrouped with his father and personal coach, Neil Holland, and Oregon associate head coach Ben Thomas to set a plan for prepping a headstart into his freshman cross country season rather than strive for inconsequential spring track marks.

College runners compete on 8K and 10K courses as opposed to 5,000-meter courses utilized for high school athletes in cross country.

“I’m super excited for the challenge of the 8K and 10K and being able to bump up and run some longer distances,” said Holland.

Having Oregon’s program waiting in the wings is really what Holland said has helped him come to grips with the abrupt end to his high school career.

“It’s been kind of a lifesaver to be able to know I’m going on to a really high-powered program that is going to be a ton of fun and also have such helpful coaching with me along the way,” he said. “All the energy and enthusiasm that I was going to put into this season, hopefully that will kind of carry over to the next few seasons at the University of Oregon and I can really pour everything I have into those after having kind of this extended break period.”

Ross has been especially impressed with how current Oregon thrower Kiana Phelps has reached out to make her and so many others feel so welcomed as future Ducks but, unlike Holland, she’s not ready to give up on the spring/summer season.

“I definitely haven’t given up hope on this season, even if it’s a one-meet kind of season in the summer,” she said. “I want to stay ready and prepared and hopeful for it.”

As such, Ross continues to do bodyweight workouts at home and has even ventured into the backyard to do some standing throws with the shot (sorry Mom and Dad).

“It hasn’t gotten too bad back there,” she said with a laugh. “We have dogs and stuff so our backyard is pretty roughed up anyways but, yeah, there’s a few more holes now.”

Of course, that stage is a far cry from what awaits Ross and Holland at the renovated Hayward Field in Eugene. They were given a glimpse of the world-class site last week during a Zoom meeting for all of Oregon’s incoming freshman track athletes led by head coach Robert Johnson.

“I’m super excited for Hayward and all the facilities,” said Ross, who will graduate next month with her high school diploma and associate’s degree as a 4.0-plus student at Logos Public Charter School. “It’s insane, it’s gorgeous I’m so excited for it.”

“I am praying right now for the facilities to be open in the summer,” she added, “because I really just want to get there as soon as possible and start training and meet my teammates and get going. It’s been a while since I’ve competed in track so I’m definitely ready to go.”

When that next step occurs is anyone’s guess these days, but Hans Voskes has no doubts on how it’s going to be once Holland and Ross finally do arrive.

“I personally believe that with EJ and Jaida, knowing their characters, the bar is set pretty high and they’re going to meet it at some point,” said the veteran coach. “We don’t know when now, but at some point they’re definitely going to meet it and build on already amazing careers.”

Have a local story idea? Reach reporter Kris Henry at 541-776-4488, khenry@rosebudmedia.com, www.facebook.com/krishenryMT or www.twitter.com/Kris_Henry

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneNorth's Jaida Ross makes a throw winning the shot put Saturday afternoon at Mt Hood Community College.
Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneAshland's EJ Holland crosses the finish line winning the 1,500-meter run Saturday at Mt Hood Community College.