BILLINGS — It has been a year to remember for Sidney senior Garrison Hughes.
Back in April, Hughes, a junior at the time, shattered the Class A pole vaulting record with a mark of 16 feet to win his second consecutive individual state championship. The points Hughes earned contributed to the Eagles' eventual team title, the school's first since 1959.
Hughes' early success on the track had NCAA Division I schools calling. But only one could net his commitment.
And that time has finally come: Hughes will join the University of Nebraska's track and field program.
Hughes will sign his letter of intent to compete for the Cornhuskers this Friday but made his decision to join the team public Wednesday morning.
In a phone conversation with 406mtsports.com last week, Hughes shared his reasoning for making Lincoln his next stop. It's a decision that Hughes said had been weighing on his mind for awhile.
"It feels really good because it was a stressful decision," Hughes said. "It is really nice to get a school picked out so you don't really have to stress out about a decision. You finally know that you're set for next year and you can start getting the gear and all that. That's the fun part of it."
Hughes said he also received interest from Minnesota, Washington and Michigan, with all three offering him different scholarship amounts. He said Nebraska had been recruiting him the longest, and was the first school to offer him a scholarship for athletics. He said his coach offered right before Hughes went through the security line in the Lincoln airport on his way back to Montana from his official visit.
"The team and coaches had really tight bonds and it felt like a family down there and they really took their track seriously and really valued the athletes," Hughes explained. "They take really good care of their athletes academically and physically."
Hughes' scholarships will cover about 80 percent of his costs. He said 30 percent — or $11,500 — was covered by his athletic scholarship. Another 50 percent were covered by academic scholarships. Hughes received $13,500 in the Ruth Leverton Scholarship due to earning a specific score on his ACT exam.
The combination of Nebraska being his favorite school coupled with it being the most affordable made his decision a no-brainer.
"It feels amazing," he said. "I've put in lots of late nights of looking up and putting together workouts and figuring out what I need to do next. It's kind of like school and figuring out what you've got to do. You kind of study for it and it's been a ton of work trying to get better and it's really nice to know it pays off in the end when you reach your goals."
Hughes added that the campus was just the right size — not too big or small. As for Lincoln, Hughes also liked that it's a bigger but not massively so; the population is around 300,000, a sizable change from the around 6,500 people who call Sidney home. He added that the area around Lincoln has a rural feel, something that reminded him of home.
And then there was the draw of going to a Division I school.
"It's sinking in still a lot from the last two years, I'd say," Hughes said. "Freshman year, I really had no idea what to expect because I kind of picked up the love for the sport around after eighth grade and beginning of freshman year ... My sophomore year, after I'd jumped 15 feet, 2 inches, I kind of realized, 'Well if I keep this up, I could really go Division I. After that, at the beginning of junior year I was starting to get recruited by some and it was really starting to sink in that if I keep working hard, I can make it to a Division I school."
Hughes' first state championship came as a sophomore when he vaulted 15 feet. As a junior, Hughes didn't even begin his vaults at state until the rest of the competition had all finished, clearing 14-6 with ease to seal the individual title on his first attempt. He reset the Class A record at 15-7 on his third vault, before besting that minutes later and clearing the 16-foot mark. Hughes came close to resetting the all-class record, currently 16-4, with three attempts at 16-5, just narrowly missing on his final attempt.
And going forward, that goal is still in sight, and more.
"That's kind of my first goal is to jump 16-5," he said. "After that, I'd really like to get over 17. Once I hit that goal, 17-3, or specifically, 5.25 meters, is kind of the final goal of the year. We've had about three practices this fall and everything is looking a lot better. It's going really good already so I can see those goals in sight for this year.
He added with a laugh, "And go Big Red."
And hey, for pole vaulters like Hughes, the sky is the limit.