Sometimes it’s the one who arrives late to the party, who ends up being the life of it.
Isjae Wright is a little like that for the Hamilton West track and field team.
The senior did not start competing in the sport until her freshman year and did not start jumping until the spring of her sophomore year. Since then, all she has done is set school records for both the indoor and outdoor triple jump and long jump, win the Mercer County triple jump championship this spring with a mark that qualified for nationals, and she also qualified for nationals with the Hornets’ sprint medley relay team.
Oh, and she also has a 3.8 grade-point average and will compete for the Rider track team next year after getting a substantial academic scholarship.
Asked what she had say about Wright, Hornets head coach Danielle Grady smiled.
“I have a lot to say,” Grady said. “This young lady started off freshman year just out to do something different, just to try something. She had a lot of potential in her but she was very scared to try to do different things. We had to break her out of her box.”
Translation: Wright was OK with the running events, but did not want to try jumps. She wasn’t taking it all that serious.
Unlike her coach, the soft-spoken Wright does not have a lot to say about herself. She is an action-first kind of girl.
“My friend was doing track, so I just decided to come out,” Wright said. “I thought it might be fun to get in shape.”
For a sport?
“No,” she said. “Just in general.”
Wright was doing all right in sprints but was finally encouraged to try jumping during her 10th-grade spring season.
“I had strong legs so they thought I should try jumping so I tried it,” she said.
But did she like it?
“Uh uh,” she said, shaking her head no. “It finally got more enjoyable once I started learning technique. Once you learn technique you just start to get better and better.”
Hornet jumps coach Gerry Van Slooten was impressed the first time he saw her jump. It came during a dual meet with Steinert.
“I remember the first meet she ever jumped in,” Van Slooten said. “I really didn’t know who she was. She had just come off two races, and I said, ‘Are you OK to jump?’ She didn’t really say much, but she went out and won long jump and triple jump in her first time out.”
Seeing that he had raw talent to mold, Van Slooten went to work and Wright began to improve. In last year’s Mercer meet, she finished second in the triple and fourth in the long. She then took fourth in the Central Jersey Group III meet in triple jump. She qualified as a wild card for the Meet of Champions with a 7th-place mark of 36-1.50 but failed to reach a personal best at MOC and finished 21st.
This past winter, Wright won the Princeton Invitational in long jump, and the Lavino Relays, Mercer County meet and Princeton Invitational Series in triple. She set school indoor records in the long (16-9) and triple (36-3.5) at Lavino.
Highlights this spring, entering the Central Jersey Group III meet on May 24-25, was a school-record long jump of 17-6 in taking first at the Mercer Coaches Classic, and a school record 38-5 in triple jump while winning the Mercer County meet. She also won both jumps at the East Brunswick Invitational, took second in both events in the Mercer Coaches Classic and second in long at the county meet.
Asked what she was proudest of up to that point, the woman of few words said, “Jumping a 38, I never thought I’d do that. The goal was to get to nationals in one of the two, and I did it with that.”
Van Slooten feels her athletic ability and inner desire is what makes Wright so special.
“She is shy, and it took her a little bit to try jumping,” he said. “But she always had the competitive fire. I coach her in tennis, too. She came out sophomore year and never picked up a tennis racket, and she was a natural athlete. She gets nervous but she’s a competitor. She’s never been scared.
“She’s always had the athletic ability but this year, especially in the county meet, she’s been super determined. There were some girls there that haven’t been jumping in Mercer County all year, and the look on her face was not one of defeat. A lot of people would come in and go, ‘Oh, where did this girl come from?’ and they’d get all worried. You just saw her staring at the runway determined she was gonna win, and she attacked.”
Grady feels the only person who can get to Wright is Wright herself.
“I have to say she’s a different breed,” the coach said. “She’s very quiet and very hard on herself. When she doesn’t do well she doesn’t take it well, and we have to pull her to the side and point out the good things she did. We have to work on a few things here and there, so she would hear that positive reinforcement, and it would definitely change her mind. It’s gonna be hurtful to have her go because I can put her in anything. I can put her in the four by one, the four by two, the SMR, anything that I need her in.”
Heading into the state meets, Wright was asked what her goal was.
“Just to PR,” she said.
What about advancing?
“If I PR, I’ll advance,” she said with a shrug.
Van Slooten marvels at how strong Wright is. During instances at practice where some girls might be wilting, she is starting to blossom.
“She gets stronger and stronger,” he said. “She’ll come to the jumps after a 200. Most girls’ legs are dead and she doesn’t seem to get 100 percent of her energy until she’s run a couple hundreds, a couple twos and warmed up for a half hour. Any other girl you think is dead, that’s when she hits her peak.”
Wright admits to being somewhat surprised at her success, saying she never thought she would break a school record. Grady noted that Wright really started to get into it when success started to come.
“Just from having that, she got her mind right,” Grady said. “She changed the way she ate, her mentality was right there. It was like ‘What do I need to do to get better?’”
And when Van Slooten tells here what to do, she listens.
“The funny thing with her is she wasn’t practicing as much as the other jumpers,” he said. “But if I tell her something, she goes home and thinks about it, all of a sudden she’ll be on the runway, and I’ll say, ‘When did you start pulling out in the back?’ She said, ‘You told me to do it.’ I’ve been telling everybody else all year to do it and I told her once and she makes the adjustments.”
She will continue to adjust as she heads to Rider. She was looking into East Stroudsburg University as well but when the Broncs coach showed interest, she jumped at the chance to stay close to home and major in business (with hopes of going into human resources). Her strong grades and involvement in the student government and Key Club made her a nice student-athlete prospect for Rider.
“She’s worried about working to the money she’ll still owe to go there,” Grady said. “Once she gets there and they see how good she is, they’ll pay the rest of it. We told her she’s gotta go to college. We’ll stand on the street corner with a bucket to get her the money!”