Hamilton West’s Barry Ndeh holds his gold medal after winning the high jump in the Central Jersey Group III meet at the Bennett Center in Toms River Feb. 3, 2018.

During the NJSIAA Group III high jump competition at the Bennett Center Feb. 18, Hamilton West senior Barry Ndeh noticed a competitor from another team looking a bit haggard.

“We were sitting there watching, and the kid was nervous,” Hornets coach Jerry Van Slooten said. “We were talking about him, and Barry comes over and said, ‘Man, that kid’s got a lot going on in his head. That’s not my problem.’ I said, ‘You’re right Barry, just go for it.’”

Which is exactly what Ndeh did, finishing the day with a jump of 6-foot-4 to claim second place and advance to the Meet of Champions for the first time. Ndeh tied with Middletown South’s Mark Anselmi, who earned the gold medal due to fewer jumps. Anselmo cleared 6-4 on his second attempt and Ndeh on his third.

Unfortunately for the Hornet, a late-dropping leg cost him the title at 6-6.

“On my final attempt, I cleared it, but hit it on the rebound,” Ndeh said. “For a second I thought I had it at 6-6, but I threw the leg down. I learned from it. I learned not to throw my head back so early”

Ndeh hoped to clear that height at the MOC on Feb. 25, which took place after this edition went to press. Clearing the height would likely have meant a medal in looking at marks around the state. Ndeh’s goal was 6-4 in Groups, which qualified for nationals. If he can get to 6-7, he qualifies for the Penn Relays.

It’s a far cry from the start of the winter season, when his best jump was 5-10.

“He’s jumping with a lot of confidence,” Van Slooten said. “He just has that energy. It seems easy. It’s like when you play basketball and the hoop seems three times the size. That’s where he’s at right now. And he’s a hard worker, and he’s competitive.”

He’s also calm in the clutch, as he cleared 6-foot, 6-2 and 6-4 all on his final attempts at the state meet.

“I didn’t feel any pressure,” Ndeh said. “If I feel any pressure, it will beat me. I try not to come in with any pressure. When I’m high jumping, I try not to think too much. If I think too much about what I’m gonna do, I mess up. So I just take a deep breath when I jump and then whatever happens, happens.”

‘I just told myself that this is what I have to do to become good.’

Good things are happening at a more frequent pace for the late bloomer. Coming into high school, this kind of success was the last thing on his mind.

“I hated track,” Ndeh said. “My sister (Sibyl) did it, and I just tagged along because she did it. And after a while I started becoming good at it.”

It took awhile, as he had fairly uneventful spring seasons his first two years. His highlight was in the 400 hurdles as a sophomore, when he knocked 13 seconds off his freshman time to take sixth in 59.75 at the Mercer County Championship. But his main sport was football, which he played all four years at West. His first two winters he played basketball, but he “just kind of fell out of love with the sport.”

Last year, Ndeh did winter track for the first time but was still in a gridiron mindset even through the start of his senior year. He received a partial scholarship to St. Francis University in western Pennsylvania. He gradually moved into high jumping, and one day, Ndeh saw a workout video for the event that he incorporated into his football workout, and his thought process changed.

“I was actually training for football, because I wanted to get more explosive,” Ndeh said. “I saw this video where they were doing these workouts for high jump and that became my workout plan.”

Two weeks prior to the indoor Mercer meet, Ndeh flipped a switch. He changed his diet and began working out feverishly, deciding to pursue a track future. He began doing parametric training, which is a strategy that helps increase performance by setting goals in one type of workout, while changing the variables that surround the workout.

He also switched to a two-week vegan diet, or semi-vegan in his case.

“I ate a lot of beans and rice,” he said. “It was very hard, some mornings I just didn’t want to wake up. I felt weak sometimes so I had to get a little bit of meat in my diet. I had to cheat a little bit.”

He is still going vegan three days a week, and has sworn off beef while making chicken the main meat in his diet.

The changes paid off, as Ndeh hit a personal best 6-2 to finish second in the high jump at the Mercer indoor meet. West Windsor-Plainsboro South’s A’Nan Bridgett won with a 6-4. Next up was the Central Jersey Group III meet, where 6-2 was good enough to give Ndeh his first gold medal in track as the second-place jump was 6-0.

“That gave me a lot of confidence going into states,” Ndeh said. “Now I saw I could jump a higher height, it gives me that drive to work even harder to set out to accomplish what I want to do.”

As an indicator of how far Ndeh has come since the start of winter, consider that in Hamilton’s first meet Van Slooten was only allowed to bring two jumpers.

“I had a jump off between him, Ahmad White and DD Hill, and Barry lost,” the coach said. “The next time we had a jump off, Barry got in and from there he just got better and better. I saw that he was starting to get it a little bit. At counties, he was four inches over when he cleared six foot, but he couldn’t clear it at 6-4. But you could see it coming.”

Ndeh, who calls Van Slooten and Danielle Grady “the best coaches in the state,” has turned his complete focus to earning a track & field scholarship. He has already received interest from Division II East Stroudsburg but hopes his spring season could lead to some Division I offers. He plans on focusing on the 4×400, triple jump and high jump.

“The good track athletes tend to be like Barry, they just can’t sit still,” Van Slooten said. “He’s a product of his own interest and athleticism. You try him in one event, you try him in another event and he just seems to be good in anything. I guess we got lucky, it started to stick. You can see when he jumps he’s got the balance, he’s just so big that it’s rare to see that. He’s like (former Hornet standout) Reidgee (Dimanche) a little bit.”

The most exciting thing about Ndeh is his high ceiling, as he is still very much learning how to do things the right way.

“He doesn’t have a tremendous amount of athletic experience, even in football he’s a little bit of a raw athlete,” Van Slooten said. “He’s just started coming into his own. With some kids it just starts to come. Also, he did basketball and didn’t get a chance to focus on track. This is his first full winter of jumping because he didn’t jump the full season last year, so that’s helped. I’m excited to see him this spring.”

While Ndeh admits he is surprised at how far he has come in a short amount of time, Van Slooten feels it is the product of all the hard work he has put in.

It is work that Ndeh talked himself into.

“I just told myself,” he said, “that this is what I have to do to become good.”