He had sprinted down these long, narrow, runway strips countless times.
Some ended with a straight takeoff into the sand, others with a hop, skip and a jump into a different sandbox. His leaps in long jump often ended in victory, and he was unbeaten in triple jump heading into this year’s state track and field championships.
Coaches, teammates and likely a few rivals thought a state title was within reach for the senior from North Caroline High.
Now, if Geni Roberts could just stop cheating himself. If he could just put his foot down on that white board in front of the pit, and stop taking off behind it, he might gain the added distance that was too far for anyone else to reach.
If only it was that simple.
“A runner, you know the ones who come with the natural speed, you just critique their form and stuff like that,” North Caroline head coach Rob Thomas said. “But when it comes to those field events, the pole vault and the long jump and the high jump, it’s a lot to it.”
Enough that Roberts thought about quitting his sophomore year.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” he said.
Roberts qualified for his states his sophomore year as a member of North Caroline’s 4x200-meter relay, and continued working at the jumps, possessing seemingly all the physical tools for success. He generated plenty of speed down the runway, had a gazelle-like spring on takeoff, looked good in flight, and extended his long legs nicely into the pit.
By his junior year he was contending for titles. He was runner-up in 2018 at the Bayside Conference and Class 2A East Region championships in the long jump before placing fourth at states (20 feet, 10½ inches). He was third in the triple jump at Baysides, won the 2A East (44-5¾), then took third at states (44-9¼).
He would go unbeaten in triple jump this year, but started slowly in long jump. Roberts finished an uncharacteristic fifth (15-11) at a home meet on a biting-cold day in late March, then placed fourth (20-7½) at the Cambridge Classic three days later, causing some to wonder if he was ready to put the necessary work in to make a serious state run.
But as the season progressed, Thomas wasn’t worried about his senior star’s work ethic, but his focus.
“Geni worked,” Thomas said. “But again we said, worked, a lot. I think what we should have said was focus. He would work, but he would lose focus when it came to the big time. So it was about getting him to focus.”
Whether his focus sharpened, or his natural talent just took over, Roberts lost only once the remainder of the season in long jump after the Cambridge Classic, that coming in the inaugural North Bayside championships, where he placed second at 20-6½.
Challenges remained though.
“It’s really, really hard, because you change speeds sometimes,” Roberts said of his run-ups to the board. “And I always change my speed because I get tired. So by like my third or fourth jump, my speed has completely changed. You have to build up endurance to keep up the same speed the entire time, and it’s really hard. That’s why it took me all the way to states to hit the board.”
Despite the multiple run-ups in warm-ups and competition — along with running a leg on the 4x200 — Roberts continued winning.
He won the long jump at the Kent Island Invitational (21-9½), was runner-up at North Baysides, then reeled off victories at the Delmarva Relays (20-7), Bayside (21-6) and 2A East Regional (21-4) championships. His rule continued in the triple jump, where he posted distances of 45-1 at Kent Island, 42-5¾ at North Baysides, 45-7½ at Delmarva, 43-1½ at Baysides, and 45-1 at regionals.
That string of titles, coupled with his 2018 showing at states fortified him with plenty of confidence heading back to Morgan State for this year’s state meet
“When I finished third (and fourth in 2018), like I knew I could win both of them eventually because they were like D1 seniors I was going against and they were leaving (graduating),” Roberts said. “So I knew I could win because I was right behind two D1 seniors.”
Two critical intricacies still concerned North Caroline’s coaching staff — the middle phase of Roberts’ triple jump, and hitting the board in both events.
“Really for (triple jump) it’s just exercises,” said Bulldog assistant Kaneesha Hollis, who competed in the long and triple jump at North Caroline before going on to earn All-American honors in the relays at the University of District of Columbia. “Just bounding so he can hold that middle step, that middle stride longer.
“But for him he had such a great first phase and a great third phase, we just kind of focused on that third phase, because by the time we got to states we can’t change your whole technique right now,” Hollis continued. “So we’ve got to work on what’s really good, and not throw off his mind game.”
The bigger issue though remained the board, where jumps are measured from regardless if the athlete makes contact or comes up short.
“So much in the long and triple jump is hitting that board,” Thomas said. “And the thing was, we would go a day or two (in practice) and he’d be hitting the board fine. Then we’d get to the meets and he’s behind the board. And being behind the board, that’s a couple of inches here or there. Either way, he very seldom scratched but he was always behind the board. And we’d tell him, ‘If you hit that board, you’re going to add inches to your jump.’”
In an attempt to get Roberts on the board, Caroline’s coaching staff played a little mind game. Approaches to the board usually range from six to eight steps. If the athlete uses his right foot as his takeoff foot, then every time that right foot strikes down on the runway, it counts as a step.
Roberts had always gone with an eight-step approach, but Thomas and Hollis decided to shorten it to seven at states without telling him.
“We marked him at seven where he thought he was still going at eight, and it worked,” Thomas said. “He was hitting the board just fine every time.”
It took some convincing though.
“Once he jumped his first jump (at states) I told him, ‘Geni, you know that’s only seven strides, right?’” Hollis said. “And he was like, ‘You’re lying.’ And I’m like, ‘No. And you hit the board.’ I said, ‘See what happens when you listen to me.’”
What happened was Roberts won the Class 2A state long jump title on his first jump, soaring a personal-record 22 feet. The other 18 competitors in the field each got their allotted three attempts in the first round, the top nine earning another three attempts in the second round. But only Roberts would go 22 feet on this first day of the 2A meet. And he did it three more times, extending his 6-foot-3, 151-pound frame 22-10½ on his second attempt, which would stand as the first-place distance in the event, then jumping 22-6 ¾ and 22-1¼ on his third and fourth tries.
“I had my steps wrong all season long,” Roberts said after his victory. “I worked on it this week with my (assistant) coach Lamar (Opher) and my coach Kaneesha.
“I hit it in long jump,” Roberts said of the board. “But I didn’t hit it at all in triple jump. I didn’t hit it once in triple jump. But in long jump at states, I hit it every single time.”
Two days later, Roberts was back competing in triple jump, taking off on his right foot, coming back down on his right foot and pushing off into phase two, before landing on his left foot and pushing himself through stage three and into the pit.
Roberts wouldn’t hit the board in triple jump, but working with Hollis on stages one and three gave him more length.
“She helped me get a lot of my phases down,” Roberts said of Hollis. “Earlier last season I was jumping only like 40s. And then by the end of that season I was jumping like 45. I worked on it and worked on it in practice so I could have a chance to win at states.”
Like long jump, Roberts made a habit throughout the season of hitting a big early jump for the lead in triple jump. He did it again on his first attempt, stringing together a hop, skip, a jump that stretched a season-best 46-1¾. Two attempts later, Roberts popped a career-best 46-6 that would be challenged but not surpassed.
“I just put everything into that jump because I wanted to get ahead to try and scare my opponents so they wouldn’t jump as well,” Roberts said. “So I put everything into that jump; third jump, first flight.”
Westlake’s Caleb Caine was closing with every jump though, going from 40-10 on his first attempt to 45-7 on his fifth. When Caine landed a 46-3¾ on his final jump, Roberts had his second title in three days, and had become North Caroline’s first state champ in triple jump.
Roberts’ distance of 46-6 was the second longest winning distance ever by a Bayside athlete at states in triple jump, behind the 47-¾ recorded by Wicomico’s De’shawnte Murray in 2015.
“It’s so technical,” Thomas said of the jumps. “One little thing you do wrong is going to cost you. To end four years and win a title in one of those events, it’s saying something about your work ethic and your focus, because one little misstep there and you’re done. There’s no coming back.”
Geni Roberts doesn’t have to.