It doesn't take long to figure out the impact small-town athletes have had on the Wichita State track and field program.
One glance at the "All-American" wall in the team room inside Cessna Stadium shows multiple athletes who arrived to WSU as small-town stars and left among the best of the best in the nation. It's almost become an annual tradition to see which ones blossom into contenders to reach the NCAA Championships.
This spring it was Aaron True (from LeRoy, Kan., population: 561), Kendra Henry (Waverly, Kan., population: 563), and Austin Corley (Adrian, Mo., population: 1,618). All three came to WSU from Class 2A or 1A high schools and became conference champions last weekend at the American Athletic Conference Outdoor meet (True in javelin, Henry in heptathlon, Corley in 400-meter hurdles).
All three are qualified for the NCAA West Regional, which begins in Sacramento, Calif. on Thursday.
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"Small-town kids are our bread-and-butter and they've been the heart and soul of our program over the years," WSU assistant coach John Wise said. "We're trying to step up our recruiting a little, but we're always going to recruit those types of kids because they have developed into some of the best athletes in the country."
Head coach Steve Rainbolt has been with the program for nearly two decades. It didn't take him long to discover that small-town, Kansas athletes had a special quality about them.
"I figured out there's something special about small-town athletes, in terms of their toughness, their competitiveness, their character, and their work ethic. I am confident that is a fact. We don't seek them out because they're small-town kids. We seek them out because they're good athletes and we know they're going to work out."
Henry is the best example of WSU's diligence to recruiting small towns.
She never won a state championship at Waverly in Class 1A, but Rainbolt was intrigued by her versatility running hurdles, competing in high jump, and throwing the javelin. So Henry came to WSU, redshirted her first year, then didn't score in the pentathlon at the AAC indoor championships this winter.
But Henry's work ethic (and addition of javelin) this spring led to her scoring 5,018 points to win the AAC outdoor title in the heptathlon. The mark ranks Henry No. 10 all-time in WSU's history.
"I think smaller-town kids are used to working hard," Henry said. "When they recruited me, they knew I wasn't that good yet, but they saw I had potential and knew I could work hard. When I got here, I knew if I just kept working hard then I can keep getting better."
Another conference title surprise was Corley. Not because he wasn't accomplished, but because Houston's Amere Lattin was a two-time AAC champion and among the fastest in the nation.
But Corley ran a personal-best time of 50.07 seconds in the 400 hurdles to edge Lattin and move up to No. 9 in the nation.
"It definitely boosted my confidence," Corley said. "I wasn't favored to win it at all. Every time I've ran against (Lattin), he's beat me. So being able to beat him gives me a big confidence boost, especially with my race pattern."
True winning the javelin was anything but a surprise. Since he arrived from Southern Coffey County, True has been one of the top javelin throwers in the country. His mark of 254-3 is a program record and moves him into the No. 5 spot in the country.
After winning, all three had their own stories of how their home towns reacted.
"My family was super proud of me," True said. "They try to make it to every meet, which is really special to me. Coming from a small town, when you go back home everyone is always high-fiving you and telling you, 'good job.' It's a pretty awesome feeling."
"Word gets out pretty quick in small towns," Henry said. "As soon as I won, a picture was posted in the paper back home. You can definitely tell small towns are really proud of all of our accomplishments."
"My race video was posted on the town's Facebook page, I guess," Corley said. "I definitely felt all of the support and it's really cool."
It's something that never gets old to watch for the WSU coaches.
"I think it's important to have that extra motivation, that edge to you," Wise said. "I think coming from a small town, a lot of these kids have that chip on their shoulder. I'm from a small town and I always felt like I had to prove myself growing up. They're never satisfied and always working hard because they feel like they have to."