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UB’s Jones gets final shot at NCAAs

University at Buffalo shot putter Jonathan Jones hopes to cap a brilliant collegiate career with a national title next week at the NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships.

The event in Eugene, Ore., could be considered the end of the beginning of his shot-putting career.

Jones, a 24-year-old from Portville, ranks fourth in the nation among collegiate throwers despite the fact he has been competing at a high level for only the past three years and a knee injury limited his training during the first half of his senior season.

Shot putters often do not peak until age 30. Jones is eager to see what he can accomplish in the coming years.

“He’s just scratching the surface right now,” said UB weights coach Jim Garnham Sr. “He’s somebody who can do something special.”

“I’m going to win nationals on a bum knee, I hope, and that’s going to give me more fuel for next year,” Jones said. “This summer I’ll take off. Get healthy and come back next year and try to make the Olympic team for next year.

“The Olympics, that’s definitely my long-term goal,” Jones said. “I don’t want to say if I don’t make it … but if I don’t make it, I’ll probably shoot for 2020.”

Jones is one of three UB athletes who will compete at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field June 10-13. UB junior sprinter Ryan Billian, a Long Island native, qualified in the 100-meter dash. UB junior Matt Morgan, from Ontario, just east of Rochester, qualified in the decathlon.

Jones has the best chance to win. He finished fourth in the NCAA shot put final as a sophomore two years ago and was 11th last year.

“Last year was more like a testing year for me at the NCAAs, because we were still trying to figure out how I would do a taper to have my body fresh for the meet,” Jones said, referring to the decrease in intensity and volume of his workouts in the weeks leading up to a big event.

“The week before NCAAs I was feeling so good in practice I took too many throws,” Jones said. “So when I got to NCAAs my body was beat up, I didn’t have any rhythm.”

Two weeks later, Jones’ body was more fresh when he competed in Sacramento, Calif., at the USA Track and Field Championships, the national championship for all ages.

He threw a career-best, 68 feet, 1 inch, and finished fourth, just 1¼ inch behind his idol, Reese Hoffa, a former world champion and 2012 Olympic bronze medalist.

The overwhelming NCAA shot put favorite is two-time defending champion Ryan Crouser of Texas. His best this season is just 14 inches farther than Jones’ personal best. However, Crouser’s personal best is 70-2¼.

Jones, 6-foot and 315 pounds, brings equal parts athleticism and brute force to his specialty.

“He can stand on the ground flat-footed with a shot put in his hand and jump up and dunk it – get it over the rim and drop it in,” Garnham said. “That’s athletic ability. You’ve got to be an athlete.”

Jones did not even pick up a shot put until his junior year at Portville High School, just east of Olean. Garnham recognized Jones’ talent, but Jones didn’t have the grades to get into UB. So Jones spent a year working on his academics at Buffalo State. He just barely qualified for UB in 2011.

“He came here with a 2.01 grade-point average,” Garnham said. “He snuck in the door.”

Jones says the biggest challenge he has met is becoming a quality student.

“I just never really tried in high school,” Jones said. “I didn’t come into my own as a student until my second year at UB. But I couldn’t be where I’m at if I didn’t take the initiative and make my grades better.”

Jones graduated in May with a degree in psychology. His grade-point averages his last two semesters were 3.17 last fall and 3.78 this spring.

Jones was forced to stop lifting weights the entire fall semester to rest his knee, sore due to an overuse injury. Nevertheless, he finished third at the NCAA indoor championships three months ago.

“It feels better a majority of the time now,” Jones said. “But I haven’t been able to weight lift my legs a lot, and leg strength is the majority of the power. I’ve already thrown just about what I threw at the end of last year despite not being able to train as much as last year. So that pushes me even more, because I know I have a lot more room to grow.”

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Morgan enters the championship ranked 12th in the decathlon, and this is his second trip to the NCAAs. He was ranked sixth last year but was forced to withdraw due to a stress fracture in his foot. Morgan, 6-1 and 176, has a career-best score of 7,699. Among his better events (with personal bests), are the high jump (6-11), the 1,500 meters (4:35) and the pole vault (17-1).

Billian placed 13th at last year’s NCAAs in the long jump with a distance of 24-¼. He posted a 100-meters personal best of 10.35 seconds last month at the Mid-American Conference meet, where he finished second. He’s ranked 22nd out of 24 athletes who qualified in the event.

email: mgaughan@buffnews.com