In a short race like the 60-meter hurdles, it's critical to get out of the starting blocks quickly.

Spring Lake Park hurdler CJ Janu did that last Saturday in an indoor meet at the University of Minnesota. He won the race with a time of 8.31 seconds.

But he didn't get the same kind of jump on his track and field career. He was actually relatively late to the game.

Janu didn't have much success his freshman year on the track and almost quit. But because of his size — Janu is almost 6-4 — he took up hurdles coach Greg Kugler's suggestion that he try the hurdles.

Now in his senior season, Janu is the top returning hurdler in the state and the favorite to win the 110 hurdles and the 300 hurdles at this spring's Class 2A state meet.

The late start to his hurdling career, though, hasn't stunted Janu's growth in the sport. He placed at the section meet his sophomore season. At last season's state meet, he finished second in the 300 hurdles and third in the 110 hurdles in what Kugler said was a very strong year for hurdlers across Minnesota.

Because of his height, speed, flexibility and attention to the technical aspects of hurdling, Janu was quick to pick up hurdling. His dedication to hurdles and impressive state meet finishes had many Division I programs interested.

He ultimately chose Iowa, where his improvement in his junior year caught the attention of Hawkeyes hurdles coach Joey Woody.

"I think he was actually just starting to come on at the state meet," Woody said. "I think if he had a few more weeks he could have even improved on his time from the state meet."

Both his high school coach and his future college coach say he has some things to clean up on the technical side of hurdling. But his size, athleticism and commitment bode well for his chances to improve.

"He's a coachable kid. He likes feedback, he likes critiques. I still think we can get him stronger and faster [before college]," Kugler said.

The winner of both hurdles races at last year's state meet, R.J. Alowonle, has graduated but pushed Janu while he was still in high school.

"Our section was really deep in hurdles," Janu said, with a special nod to Alowonle. "Half the guys in the section finals went to state. All those guys pushing each other, it made us all better. That made for a great race and a great season."

His state meet results and a deep class of Minnesota seniors graduating have Janu motivated to chase a double state title, something he and Kugler said is within reach.

"That motivation is really contagious to the rest of the guys that are on the squad. He just wants to bring his excitement to everyone else around him," Kugler said.

Janu, who also played quarterback for the Panthers' football team, said track was originally just an outlet to stay in shape for football. But he now considers himself a hurdler first and sports a dark blue tattoo of the USA Track & Field symbol on his right shoulder to show his commitment.

He missed the end of his senior football season when he broke his right foot and sprained the ankle. He still has a metal screw in his foot that he said might be permanent but added he can't feel it when he runs.

After the rehab process, he said, he's just happy to get back on the track for the start of spring season.

"It means everything to me. I mean, track is my life. It's really become my passion and it's all I really think about," Janu said.

Derek Wetmore is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.