CAHOKIA — With a light rain falling on a late May morning at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Cahokia freshman Ja'Mari Ward stood on the O'Brien Stadium runway as he prepared for his next attempt in the long jump at the Class 2A state track and field meet.
Trailing Comanche teammate Chris Moore, Ward let his mind go blank as he began his approach toward the take-off board.
Less than 10 seconds later, Ward was a state champion with a new Class 2A state record leap of 23-feet, 7 3/4-inches to his credit.
"I don't ever really think when I'm jumping. I just kind of let my mind go blank and focus on what I'm doing," Ward said. "It was tougher that day, because I had never jumped in those kind of conditions.
"I wanted to be a state champion though. I just focused a little more that day."
The son of Joe and Rhonda Ward of Cahokia, Ja'Mari Ward could be well on his way to being far more than just a state champion.
Ward, the national 14-year-old age group record holder in the long jump (22-11 1/2), was the nation's top-ranked freshman in the event this season. A leap of 24-2 inches is his career best.
Perhaps the most gifted performer on a Cahokia squad full of national-caliber athletes, who combined to total a state-meet record of 99 1/2 team points while winning a third straight title, Ward is the one opposing athletes and coaches watch the most, according to Comanches' coach Leroy Millsap.
"Every time he's on the runway now, people stop and watch because they think something spectacular is going to happen," Millsap said. "He's got his own fan club now. Everybody looks up to him. He's a hard-working kid."
Also one of the best in the state in the triple jump, where he placed third at the state meet, Ward has been chosen as the 2013 News-Democrat Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
Ward is the third member of his family to excel in track at Cahokia. Older brother LyJerrick Ward is attending Eastern Illinois University, while brother La'Derrick is a standout in the long jump at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
La'Derrick Ward qualified for the NCAA Division I Championships in the long jump this spring.
'"I'm pretty close to my brothers. La'Derrick taught me most of what I know about jumping," Ward said. "But honestly, I didn't like sports that much when I was younger. I liked school better.
"But really, both of my brothers have been a big help in helping to coach me. They have been a huge part of making me as good as I've become.''
Millsap, a former world-class athlete in the triple jump, also has played a key role in Ward's development. Millsap works with Ward and many Cahokia athletes in the summer during the AAU season. He also coaches Ward in cross country during the fall.
Millsap said Ward has something coaches can't teach. The desire to be the best and the work ethic to get there.
"That's something you are born with," Millsap said. "Ja'Mari is the type of kid who always wants more out of himself.
"At the state meet, he wins the Class 2A state title in the long jump and sets a new mark in Class 2A in the process. Then he goes over and places third in the triple jump.
"But it's not a big deal to him. He wanted the all-time state record in the long jump. I think you are looking at a future world-class athlete here. I think he can jump 26 feet by the time he's out of high school."
Ward also credits Chris Moore and many other Comanche teammates for helping him. Moore, who will compete at McKendree University next year, pushed Ward in practice every day and during meets.
"We're both competitors. We both want to win. But we're also friends. It was a friendly rivalry. I don't think I would have become as good as I did this year without Chris," Ward said. "There was pressure to do well this year, but it was pressure I put on myself because I wanted to do well and help the team.
"The team itself was great. I wanted to do well, but I think the others would have understood if I would have struggled this season, because I was only a freshman."