Caleb Kath was nudged into this.
Now look at him.
On Feb. 15, in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Indoor Challenge at Mankato’s Myers Fieldhouse, the Fillmore Central graduate sailed 24 feet, 6 inches in the long jump.
It easily won the event, was the seventh best distance in NCAA Division II this season and ranked fourth best all-time for a Minnesota State University, Mankato jumper.
Kath, who didn’t take up track and field until he was a senior at Fillmore Central, now has wide eyes. His focus is on the Mavericks’ long jump record of 26-2 3/4, set in 1982 by Ed Stuart. Peter Pratt is second (24-10 1/2), Eric Johnson third (24-7 1/2), then Kath.
“I think I can get it,” said Kath, a junior at MSU. “My whole thing is that I want to get (26-3) before I leave. I would love to get the school record. I’ll do everything I can to get it."
It was a car trip to Iowa with Lanesboro/Fillmore Central track and field coach Lori Anderson that changed Kath’s life.
But months before that came something even more important: Crucial encouragement that came Kath’s way from fellow Fillmore Central athletes.
A speedy wide receiver and defensive back with the Falcons, football had always been Kath’s main priority. His dream had been to play college football, though he kept those desires mostly to himself.
But in late winter of 2017, he was given another idea.
Having always witnessed Kath’s unmistakable speed, his buddies had a request.
Why not — for the first time — bring those gifts to the Lanesboro/Fillmore Central track and field team. This was his last shot at it for Kath, a senior at the time.
Kath had reasoned in years past that he should reserve springtime for private football workouts. But those days were now done, with no college football offers coming in.
Out of excuses, Kath said yes.
Nothing has been the same since.
“It’s crazy when I think back that three years ago, I wasn’t even considering anything with track and field,” Kath said. “It’s kind of unreal. Now, I can’t imagine myself without (it)."
AN 'AMAZING' SENIOR YEAR
The most amazing Class A jumper in the state in 2017 — and possibly ever in southeastern Minnesota — was Rushford-Peterson’s Noah Carlson.
Carlson had won the long jump and triple jump twice at the state meet before being shelved late in his senior season with a hamstring injury. But there were two other guys in Carlson’s senior season from Section 1A who showed they could also compete. One was Lake City’s Ethan Heitman, who finished third at state in the long jump with a 22-1 1/4 clearance. The other was Kath, an unknown out of Fillmore Central. He qualified for state in his first crack at it, then sailed 20-6 1/4 for 12th place.
“Caleb did amazing things his senior year,” Anderson said. “Right away, I could see he had some speed, and we always want our speed guys to try some jumps. When we looked at him, we said, ‘It looks like he’s got some talent.’ ”
Anderson was correct, and it didn’t take Kath long to prove it.
“Our very first meet was the Saint Mary’s University Indoor Meet and we had kids competing (including Kath) who’d never jumped in a pit before,” said Anderson, who is the Lanesboro/Fillmore Central girls coach, while Alex Aiken coaches the boys. “But right away, Caleb jumped in the low 19s (feet). He picked up on things so well. I could tell how he was focused and wanted to do it. He did so well for never having experienced any of it before.”
Anderson didn’t know either of Kath’s parents, Melanie or Jeff. But that didn’t stop her from volunteering a life-changing idea to him shortly after his senior season, followed later by a 185-mile ride to make it a reality.
Anderson, a former long-distance college track standout, knew that Kath had more to give and so much potential to realize.
So she spoke up.
“I asked Caleb what he planned to do in college, and asked him if he’d still like to compete in track and field,” Anderson said.
Kath hadn’t even planned to go to college. He figured joining the Army was going to be his next step.
But he’d gotten the long jumping bug. So, when Anderson told him in mid-summer about a chance to compete at the junior college level, with Iowa junior colleges offering track and field, Kath was intrigued. The next thing he knew, he and Anderson were driving 185 miles to Fort Dodge, Iowa, home of Iowa Central Community College and its renowned junior college track and field program.
“Caleb ended up registering for classes at Iowa Central that same day,” Anderson said. “The coaches said that they could help him (in track and field), but that he was going to have to prove himself.”
'A BOOT-CAMP ENVIRONMENT'
Kath didn’t join the Army. He joined Iowa Central.
But when it came to the way the school ran its track and field program, Kath might as well have been in the military.
“It was kind of crazy there, to be honest,” Kath said. “It was more like a boot-camp environment. I wasn’t expecting it, but we had 4:30 a.m. weight-training workouts at Iowa Central. I’m sure it was a way to make sure everybody wanted to really be there.”
Not all of them did.
“I’d say that about half of the kids quit,” Kath said.
The Fillmore Central graduate wasn’t among that half.
“There were some practices that I thought about quitting, but I never thought about quitting the team,” Kath said.
Kath, fully invested by then in taking his long jumping as far as he could, looks back at his Iowa Central time with gratitude, though little nostalgia.
The farming town that housed the college, Fort Dodge, did little to inspire him. And he says that he was surrounded by a number of troubled athletes, some of them former national high school stars who couldn’t get into four-year schools or had been kicked out of them and were coming to Iowa Central as a last resort.
“There were a lot of great athletes there, but some tough behaviors,” Kath said. “My roommates were all straight arrows. I tried to surround myself with people who were there for the right reasons. I stayed away from all of that other stuff.”
What all of them offered, troubled or not, was great competition. That included a handful of athletes who Kath considered Olympic-level. Kath used that to push himself. And his coaches never stopped pushing Kath to be all that he could be. By the time he was done with his two years at Iowa Central, he’d jumped 23-6 and his team had won a national junior college track and field championship.
“It was all a learning experience, and I was pretty naive when I went in,” Kath said. “It wasn’t something that I enjoyed a lot, but it helped make me a better athlete and a better student.”
KATH IS 'TUNED IN'
When Brian Sebera was coaching jumpers at the University of Sioux Falls one year ago, he recalls an athlete from Iowa Central sticking out to him when the schools competed in some of the same meets.
“I remember watching this kid compete and thinking, ‘Man, I’d like to coach him,’” Sebera said. “I was thinking, ‘If I just had the opportunity to clean up this or that with him.’ It was just one of those things where I saw he had the physical tools, the way he sped himself into the air and manufactured the positions he wanted. Seeing him from afar, all of those pieces stood out.”
These days, Sebera is no longer watching Kath from a distance. He’s watching him up close, and yes, they are dissecting things together at Minnesota State University, Mankato, Kath as a student-athlete, Sebera as the Mavericks’ jumping coach.
And yes, it’s going very, very well. Everything that Sebera had presumed about Kath — the athleticism, the focus, the drive — it’s all there.
“To have the opportunity to work with (Kath), there is nothing like it,” Sebera said. “The kid is tuned in. He is all in. He wants to experience this to whatever heights it can take him.”
On Feb. 15, it took him to 24 feet, 6 inches. Kath jumped that personal best that afternoon, then did it once more before the day was done.
“That definitely showed me that my hard work is paying off,” said Kath, who invests two to three hours of practice and lifting time per day, up to seven days per week.
Two weeks later, at the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Indoor meet, Kath showed up with an ailing back. It left him well short of hitting the meet record of 24-8 he’d been gunning for, though his 23-9 distance was still enough to win the NSIC title.
Then, just like that, his season was done. Kath was in Birmingham, Ala., on March 14, ready to compete in the NCAA Division II Indoor Championships, when the meet was called off. The NCAA determined that the coronavirus outbreak had become too serious for any spring sports to continue.
So, Kath now finds himself at his Mankato apartment, taking online classes, the Minnesota State campus having all but emptied due to the virus.
Still, there’s plenty of dreaming and scheming and working for next season going on in Kath’s apartment, the Fillmore Central grad determined to do whatever it takes to prepare himself.
Kath is a jumper now. It’s in him, and there’s no turning back.