DeKALB – Claudette Day could have been competing at the IHSA track and field state meet May 16 and 17.
Instead, the Northern Illinois freshman will take part in the high jump at the NCAA National Championships at 2:45 p.m. Satuday at Hayward Field on the University of Oregon campus in Eugene.
After her junior season at Belleville West High School in the Metro East area of St. Louis, Day had contact with collegiate coaches, and the thought of starting her college career early crept into her head – even if she was just joking around with it at first.
"After my junior year when I was at state, I was just playing around with the idea with my parents," Day said. "I was like, 'What if I graduate early?' So, then they started calculating things, they were like, 'You really should.' I was like, 'I was kidding, but OK, I'll look more into it.'
"As my senior year came I was like. 'I'm just going to graduate early, it's the better thing to do.' "
All Day needed to do to graduate a semester ahead of time was have her teachers at Belleville West sign off, as well as add another English course.
Day ended up taking a visit to NIU last fall, liked the coaches and facilities and ended up committing.
"It was more that I needed to move on for me, because I needed that extra coaching, that extra level," Day said of leaving high school a semester early. "So, I really needed that. My summer coach, he really helped me, but I saw that I needed more. I knew college coaches had that."
Saturday, she'll be in the same competition with the best collegiate high jumpers in the nation. The 24-team field includes returning All-Americans Courtney Anderson (South Florida), Leontia Kallenou (Georgia), Thea LaFond (Maryland) and Shanay Briscoe (Texas).
Day cleared 5 feet, 7.75 inches at the West prelims, and has a season-best of 5-10. The top-seven high jumpers in the field had prelim marks of 5-11.25.
"I think the biggest thing is, when you're focused and you compete, and you want it, you've got to believe in yourself. She'll be fine," NIU coach Connie Teaberry said. "She steps up to the plate, she doesn't shy down. These are some of the girls she's seen all year-round. It'll be in the best venue for track and field, so it will be a great experience for her."
Day is the second NIU athlete to qualify for nationals. Shot putter Ashley Morrow earned a spot in 2007. The program was cut in 1982 but reinstated in 2000.
Since the NIU Soccer and Track & Field Complex opened in 2008, the NIU program has came a long way, and the Chessick Practice Center has been a big boost for track and field facilities, as well.
"It's hard to be a Division I program, training-wise and then recruiting-wise, without a track. It's hard without the throwing, without the lanes, without the long jump. It's extremely difficult," Teaberry said. "And all the high schools have tracks. So if you're recruiting a kid, they're at a high school and they have a track, it's like, why would I come here, you don't have a track.
"Northern Illinois, the administration, the president have definitely put a lot of money into athletics, and we are reaping the benefits of it through our recruiting and the talent we're able to bring in, and those girls are going to perform at the conference meet and do great things nationally."
Day hopes the facilities will be one thing that helps bring more athletes to the national stage, where she thinks Day can be a fixture.
"Sky is the limit," Teaberry said. "As long as she keeps her focus and believing in herself, sky is the limit for her."