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Prep track and field: The 'Zill' of Victory!

May 16—DES MOINES — From failing to clear six feet as a freshman to challenging seven feet as a sophomore.

Eli Zillman proved on Thursday that a lot can change in just one year. The Fairfield sophomore became a state champion on the opening day of the 2024 Iowa High School State Track and Field Championships, clearing the bar at six feet and nine inches on his first attempt breaking a school record in the boys high jump becoming the only athlete so far in the state to clear that height so far this season.

"I had plans on placing. I wanted a medal. I know how last year looked (tying for 17th clearing 5-11). It was okay, but I knew I could do better," Zillman said. "I knew there was going to be amazing competition here. There were guys that came in here jumping around 6-8, it can be a little intimidating."

Zillman was joined at state for the second straight year by Trojan teammate Ryan Giberson, who like Zillman only cleared 5-11 last year at state finishing in a tie for 14th based on fewer misses. Giberson also made strides this season, earning a state medal by finishing seventh overall on Thursday clearing 6-3 without a miss before failing to clear three attempts at 6-5.

"It's bittersweet. Eli and I have been neck-and-neck all season," Giberson said. "I'm super proud of Eli, but at the same time I'm disappointed I could be right there at the end challenging him for that title."

Zillman also joined Giberson in dropping out of the competition after missing his first two attempts at 6-3. After clearing his third and final attempt to stay in the competition, Zillman moved up clearing 6-5 on his first try before advancing with a successful second high jump at 6-7, clinching a top-five finish while matching his own school record.

"I'm very competitive and I just didn't want to go out like that," Zillman said after clearing 6-3 on his final attempt. "I wanted to place. There were still 13 jumpers left. I needed to pick up my speed. I did my best to pick it up, jumped and hoped for the best."

Zillman ultimately clinched his first state title by successfully clearing three bars in four jumps after being pushed to the limit at 6-3. With five jumpers still left as the bar moved up to 6-9, Zillman would be forced to push himself to a new limit in hopes of continuing his state title pursuit.

"The highest I've ever tried to high jump is 6-7.25. That was just to try and break the school record at that time," Zillman said. "I got a little worried when they moved it up to 6-9. I wasn't sure what I was going to do."

If Zillman was initially worried about clearing the bar, it didn't show on his first attempt. Zillman sailed over without touching the bar to put himself in prime position with four other athletes needing to clear 6-9 to keep the competition going. One by one, each of Zillman's four rivals failed to get over the bar leaving the Fairfield sophomore somewhat stunned after the final attempt by LeMars senior Wanding Hosnyang sent the bar off the stand.

"Once I cleared 6-7 on my second try, I had the confidence in myself to go after 6-9," Zillman said. "I started to think that I might even be able to clear seven feet."

That mark, which no athlete has ever cleared at the state track and field meet, just eluded Zillman on his three attempts. Even in the middle of attempting to clear the bar, the Fairfield sophomore acknowledged just how high off the ground seven feet truly was.

"It's a height I never have seriously thought of attempting," Zillman said of the seven-foot mark. "I've messed around at practice putting the bar up to seven feet just to run right into it. The only time I've cleared seven feet is with a bungee cord."

Zillman's win was the highlight of a morning session that produced medal-winning performances from eight area athletes representing four different schools in five different events. While Zillman was in the process of jumping for a state title, Albia sophomore McKenna Montgomery was running for a championship in the 2A girls 3,000-meter run.

After running near the front of the field throughout the race, Montgomery earned her best state track and field finish making it on to the podium by finishing third in 10:21.17. It would be the first of two medals won by Montgomery on Thursday after out front during the second leg of the 4x800 relay helping the Lady Dees set a school record in the event finishing fifth overall in 9:45.12.

"I wanted to get out quick, which I do in most of my races," Montgomery said. "I just wanted to run my race. I've run with so many of these girls already after finishing second in the state cross-country meet this fall. I had confidence I could stay up there in the 3,000. It was awesome to make it to the podium.

"There was plenty of time to recover for the 4x800. Abby (George) got us a great lead with her first leg. I was just trying to hang on to that."

George, after running the fastest opening two laps in the 2A girls 4x800, came back to earn her second medal of the day in the 2A girls 400-meter dash. The top-seeded Albia junior crossed the finish line in 58.69 seconds, placing fifth overall giving the Lady Dees 14 team points after the first day at state moving into a tie for third place with Eshterville-Lincoln Central just three points behind Tipton and one point behind Van Meter.

"All the hard work I put into the offseason has really paid off," George said. "Finishing in the top five in any event at state is a great accomplishment. Having a small team, everyone pulls their weight. It allows us to have a great amount of fun."

George nearly tracked down Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont junior Kate Shafer in the final heat of the 400 meters. Shafer matched twin sister Molly in securing her sixth different state track and field medal, placing fourth for the Rockets in the quarter-mile dash in 58.38 seconds.

"I'm just glad and grateful that I'm here to compete against the best," Kate Shafer said. "I'm just focusing on running my best. I grateful I got a medal. Hopefully, we can get some more. It's a good way to set the tone for the rest of the meet."

Cardinal senior Alec Rachford earned a state medal by finishing fifth at state in the 2A boys shot put, clearing 52 feet and eight inches. Rachford was joined in the competition by Comet senior teammate Isaac Cox, who placed 11th with a throw of 49-10.75 in his first and only trip to state.

"I think we helped motivate each other," Rachford said. "We keep each other in check and keep each other working hard. It feels really good to accomplish something like that after all the hard work I've put in over the past four years."

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.