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High hopes for USF high jumper Baxter

The sophomore, who jumped a collegiate-best 7-4 1/2 this year, is an Olympic hopeful.

By PETE YOUNG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 5, 2002

"Can I be a front-page story in my hometown paper?" Jimmy Baxter asked. "What else do you have to do?" "Can I be a front-page story in my hometown paper?" Jimmy Baxter asked. "What else do you have to do?"

It appears Baxter has rendered his question rhetorical. A South Florida sophomore and Boca Ciega graduate, Baxter high jumped 7 feet, 4 1/2 inches April 13 at the Miami Invitational in Coral Gables.

It was the best jump of the year by a collegian, and it ranked Baxter as the sixth-best jumper this year in the world.

Welcome to the front page, Jimmy. With photo.

"Dang, I get the front page? It sure took y'all long enough," said the affable Baxter, tongue partially in cheek. "I appreciate it."

Baxter has slipped slightly in the rankings -- he was No. 2 among collegians heading into Saturday's meet at Texas, behind Princeton senior Tora Harris -- but he is the youngest of the world's top 10 jumpers in 2002. Baxter finished second at Texas, jumping 7-2 1/2.

"He's got a rare combination of speed and power," track coach Greg Thiel said. "He's technically sound, and he's fast and powerful."

Baxter, 21, is a prime candidate for the 2004 Olympic team, and with continued progression could enjoy several years of six-figure income on the European circuit.

With such glorious possibilities, one question looms: When will Baxter get serious and ditch basketball?

Baxter, a 6-5 guard/forward on the USF basketball team, is a potential starter next season. He is a superb defender and, as expected, a goosebump-inducing dunker.

He came to USF on a basketball scholarship, and he likely will have a decision to make after next season: play his senior year in 2003-04 or begin full-bore preparations to qualify for the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.

"I know it's going to come time to make a decision," Baxter said. "I've got a lot invested in (the high jump), and I work hard at it, but I know basketball brought me here and I'm thankful for that. They're very different, but I love both and it would be hard to give one up."

Baxter recently got engaged to Monica Thompson, a USF education major who graduated Saturday, so he is growing accustomed to making significant long-term decisions.

"I'll do anything in the world that will enhance Jimmy's abilities to reach his goals and help his family," men's basketball coach Seth Greenberg said. "Obviously, he's tremendously gifted in the high jump. ... But I don't want to get too far ahead."

Baxter had a personal best 7-3 3/4 as a freshman when he won the Conference USA championship and placed sixth at the NCAAs, earning All-America honors.

Part of his success is credited to his basketball background. He is a natural performer who maintains poise under pressure.

"He's the "quarterback high jumper,' " said assistant track coach Don Marsh, who specializes in the high jump. "He plays the crowd. The bigger the pressure, the more people there, the higher he responds. Some people go into a shell in that situation. Jimmy, that's when he's at his best. He thrives on it."

With just a couple of weeks to reacclimate to high jumping after basketball season ended, Baxter put on a show March 30 at the Florida Relays in Gainesville.

"It became an ego-fest almost, because the high jump was right in front of a huge crowd cheering entirely for the Florida high jumpers (Matt Vincent, Joe Squittieri and James White, who also plays basketball)," Marsh said. "This became a big deal to Jimmy, and he fed right into it. He can really respond to that atmosphere."

Baxter cleared 7-2 1/2 to win, edging Vincent on fewer misses.

"He just feeds off the competition, and if you're going to try to make money in this sport, you have to have that," Marsh said.

The 7-41/2 jump in Coral Gables came on his first attempt at that height and he was sick, so it is possible Baxter could go higher.

"My goal (this year) was 7-6, but I get greedy at times," said Baxter, who was hoping to clear 7-6 in Texas.

To be a favorite at the Olympic Trials, Baxter likely will need to consistently clear 7-6, with a best of at least 7-8.

No one thinks that is out of reach.

"Seven-8 is the magic window into the top 10 in the world," said Marsh, who thinks Baxter could be a standout in the 400 meters and triple jump. "It's a tall order for this year, but it's within his grasp over the next few years."

Baxter probably is a year or more from eliminating a sport. For now, it remains basketball and the high jump. Or, more appropriately, the high jump and basketball.

After all, it's the high jump that got him on the front page.

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