A big jump in popularity / Pole vaulting enjoying comeback among area athletes
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9 hours ago
By MATT STRAYER
T-G Sports Writer
The darkest days of Ohio high school pole vaulting could be considered the brightest for the Ashland High School program.
About the same time the event nearly was wiped off the OHSAA radar, Greg Steele became a back-to-back Division I state pole vaulting champion in 1996 and 1997.
His senior year, Steele set the AHS record with a 16-foot vault at the Ohio Heartland Conference meet at Mansfield Madison, according to then-Ashland boys coach Keith Dohner. At the time, that vault tied the state record and to this day is only a quarter inch short of Amherst Steele vaulter Dominic Pellittieri's 2001 state-best height.
"I won't forget that moment," Dohner, now the girls indoor coach, said with a nostalgic chuckle.
In those days, liability and cost concerns threatened pole vaulting at the high school level in Ohio, Dohner said. But now, maybe more than ever, pole vaulting is thriving in the Ashland area -- thanks in part to Steele and others like him who have gone before, among other reasons.
"There was a period of time in the state of Ohio where the event was in danger of being eliminated because, if you have a death or a serious injury here or there, once a year or every so often, the whole liability issue is such a weighing force," Dohner said.
"Fotunately, I think one of the driving forces that helped save it is how big the event is collegiately," he said, adding that Steele vaulted four years at the University of Kansas. "You've got so many athletes that gain scholarships in Ohio with that event. I think that's what helped calm things down."
Eight pole vaulters from the nine Times-Gazette coverage area schools qualified for their respective regional meets last spring. Three of those were from Ashland -- Garrett Johnson, Ryan Smeltzer and Susie Powell -- making up a good chunk of its 17 regional qualifiers.
All three of those pole vaulters will be back for at least another season for the Arrows. Powell holds the AHS girls record with a 10-foot vault.
Pole vaulters also accounted for four of the 12 area state qualifiers in 2008 indoor track and field, a sport that has been building steam ever since the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches started holding an indoor state meet five years ago.
Ashland's Johnson, Crestview's Emily Mack, New London's Brittany Bucher and Northwestern's Jana Wyatt were those indoor state meet qualifiers.
According to Wyatt, who also was the only area pole vaulter to qualify for the 2008 outdoor state meet, the indoor season kickstarted her outdoor season and helped her build momentum for the postseason.
"You never do very well in the first meet just because it's all coming back to you again," she said. "It was a lot easier because the first meet I had already been doing it for a few months."
Wyatt, the holder of Northwestern's girls record with a vault of 11 feet, 3 inches, was one of several Husky products guided by former coach Ken Fisher. Others include 2006 regional qualifier Kyrstal Wellert and 2008 regional qualifier Andrew Brodwolf.
"We'll be trying to work on some new names now," Husky boys coach Mike Burkholder, also Wyatt's father, said.
For the Huskies, those new names look as promising as ever because of one new name in particular.
Former University of Akron pole vaulter Jessi Hafner, a Wooster High School graduate who vaulted for Fisher when he was the Generals' coach, will lead the Husky pole vaulters this winter and spring.
"I think the difficult area with pole vault is having someone there to coach the event -- more so, probably, than any other event," Burkholder said. "The priority for us when coach Fisher got the position was to try and make a connection, either to develop someone on our staff or to find a coach who could bring some expertise to that event. I think that's a critical piece."
So critical, in fact, that the OHSAA has mandated that all programs with pole vaulting as an event must have a certified pole vaulting coach.
That has had a drastic effect on the way pole vaulting is coached, and in turn has played a major role in keeping the sport around at the high school level, according to Ashland's former volunteer pole vaulting coach Bill Bardy.
"In the olden days, a coach would say, 'Grab a pole. You're fast and strong, you can pole vault. Let's get some points here.' They were worried about scoring points," said Bardy, who became the first pole vaulting state qualifier for Mapleton in 1974. "I think that's saved it a lot was pushing to get somebody in there that knows what's going on. If it's done correctly, with the right poles and everything, it's not that dangerous."
But certified coaches were just one of many changes the sport has undergone in the last decade, Bardy added.
Another change: the establishment of girls pole vaulting as an OHSAA-sponsored event.
"The girls really saved the sport when girls started getting involved in it," said Bardy, whose daughter, Emma Bardy, is a freshman pole vaulter at Tiffin University. "I think it was going to be a dying event because some people get hurt, it's very expensive.
"Fifteen thousand dollars for a pit, $300 or $400 for a pole. It gets pretty expensive, so I think the high schools were going to etch it out until the girls took over."
Over the last few years, girl pole vaulters have become prolific in the Ashland area.
When Bill Bardy started coaching the Arrow pole vaulters in 2005, the girls school record was 6-6. Emma Bardy stretched it to 9-6 before Powell broke that with a 10-0 vault last May.
New London's Bucher, also a 2008 outdoor regional qualifier, holds the Wildcat girls record with a 10-0 vault. Meanwhile, Crestview's Mack was a three-time indoor state meet qualifier.
"There always seemed to be a lot of good jumpers in this area. Why that is, I don't know," Bill Bardy said. "The old saying, 'Success breeds success,' so when you have a few good ones, younger kids usually come up and just continue it."
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