North Central College's James Hoffman could almost touch the top of the mountain during the 2010 College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin outdoor men's track and field championship.
Hoffman, who finished second to Augustana's Greg Davis in the preliminaries of his signature event — the 400-meter hurdles — was leading in the finals as the race neared its conclusion.
"I ran really, really great," Hoffman said this week. "I was on a national qualifying pace. Right at the end of the race, at the 10th hurdle, I fell. I was in first place at the time, and (Davis), I believe, got a national time. I ended up getting last place because I fell."
That race ended in much the same manner as Hoffman's NCC track career. The Minooka Community High School grad enjoyed plenty of success as a regular contributor for an NCAA Division III national power, but he endured some heartbreak as well.
NCC won Division III national championships in both indoor and outdoor men's track in 2010 and 2011. It was first in outdoor track and fifth in outdoor track this spring. In 2012, the Cardinals won their third straight Al Carius Award, given annually to the most outstanding men's cross country and track and field school in the country. Carius currently serves as head coach in men's cross country and associate head coach in men's track and field at NCC.
When Hoffman decided to attend NCC and join its track program — passing up the chance to play college football — he said the school's success was not a factor.
"When I first came there, I didn't even really consider it. It wasn't in my thought process," Hoffman said. "I sat down with Al Carius as a freshman prospective student. ... He was so awesome, so philosophical. It was obvious that he was somebody you can really look up to.
"It wasn't really about the national records or the championships or the dynasty they had formed. It was about their way — their outlook on track and field, and on running in general. It was really unique, and I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of."
Hoffman quickly earned a place in the Cardinals' lineup. He competed in seven outdoor meets in the 400-meter hurdles and in five in the 110-meter hurdles as a freshman, with peak times of 57.47 seconds at the Gregory Invitational in the 400 and 16.93 seconds at NCC's own Red/White Invitational in the 110.
In 2010, Hoffman competed 15 times between the two events during the outdoor season. His 400 time was down to 54.86 seconds by the Gregory Invitational, which would ultimately be a career personal best. In the 110, his best time was 16.59 seconds at the season-opening First Chance Invitational.
By Hoffman's junior year, he had focused almost entirely in the 400 hurdles. He competed in the 110 just once, and in a sprinkling of other events. His season-best time was a 55.79 at the CCIW Outdoor Championship, which was good for fourth place. He lowered his time to 55.38 at the 2012 conference meet but finished sixth.
"Not running a P.R. (in 2012), which is something we really aim to accomplish at North Central, is kind of heartbreaking," Hoffman said, "but I competed really well and gave it my all and I'm happy with it in that way, even if it did kind of leave a bitter taste in my mouth."
Frank Gramarosso, who became head men's track and field coach at NCC in 2010 and has been in the program since 1983, says Hoffman was an important member of the Cardinals during his four years with them.
"He's a great contributor to our program, both in terms of attitude and of performance," Gramarosso said. "Not everybody is going to be an All-American, but we try to make sure everyone learns the characteristics it takes to be successful in life while they're here. He was a conference-level performer, and he gave great insight to our program with his work ethic and dedication."
Though Hoffman says he is happy with his decision to join the NCC track program, he has had some second thoughts about not playing football in college. He wishes he had at least considered participating in both sports, as some NCC students have done, though he admits the workload would have been difficult to handle.
In terms of what Hoffman did on the track for the Cardinals, he has no regrets — even about the fall that cost him a likely conference title in 2010.
"I was satisfied that I did all I could, and maybe did a little too much, pushed a little too hard," Hoffman said. "I was hungry. I wanted it all, and I went as hard as I could and I paid for it. I don't regret it. It was awesome to be in that position in the first place."
Now Hoffman hopes to put his NCC degree to use soon. He originally declared as an English major but later switched to interactive media studies. Hoffman was a three-time Academic All-CCIW selection, and earned a 4.0 grade-point average for the first time during his final semester.
"The major itself is very broad. You touch on a little bit of everything," he said. "I'm still relatively inexperienced and still trying to identify where exactly I want to go as a graphic designer."