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Pole vaulters reaching pinnacle after humble beginnings

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Posted: Saturday, April 23, 2011 8:00 am

Jeff Guy has been teaching the intricacies of pole vault for longer than some of his pupils have been on the same earth they use a 15-foot pole to leap from.

He calls it a progress sport.

No one starts out jumping 10 feet just as no one's first snow skiing hill is the watch-out-for-that-first-step black diamond run at a resort. They start out on the bunny hill and make their way up to the most treacherous challenge.

So when Desert Vista freshmen find themselves in the pole vaulting group, often being brought there by a curious friend, for the first time they are nowhere near the pole or mat.

"We have to get them comfortable with the takeoff and landing when they first get started," Guy said. "It is a very unique sport and it takes some time to get motions down."

It isn't like sprint events, obviously, where an athlete is either fast or not. A coach can tweak form, but either the speed is there or not.

With field events like pole vaulting the progress by the time a freshman becomes an upperclassman is enough to make a coach shake his head in pride.

"When they come in as freshmen they have no idea what they are capable of because they almost always have never done it before," Guy said. "Each year they get to a new level and it is a great thing to watch. I've learned you never put a limit on an athlete. Our goal is not necessarily to get better than anyone else but to better themselves. If you get better at the state meet but finish last it is still a great meet."

A year after setting a national record by getting five girls to reach 12 feet, 1 inch or higher, the Thunder has some of the best vaulters in the state.

On the girls side, seniors Merritt Ten Hope and Kylie Harmon are ranked fourth and fifth in Division I with season bests of 11 feet and 10 feet, 7 inches, respectively.

The boys have a state title contender in junior Aidan Foster, who has a Division I best of 15-1 to become the 96th athlete in Arizona history to break 15 feet.

Each has their own story since those initial freshmen campaigned when they were all starting out on the proverbial bunny hill.

Foster is a bit shy and introverted and Guy has been working with him to be more confident. It is starting to come now that he cleared 15 feet. He is starting to understand that he might actually be pretty good at this pole vaulting stuff after winning the Tempe City Meet with the 15-1 effort.

"I smiled and it felt good, but I didn't really think much about it after that," said Foster, who cleared 13 feet as a sophomore. "I guess I am doing pretty good."

Guy said that the 15-foot mark as a junior is a big step in getting noticed by colleges and should set Foster up for a big state meet and senior season.

"Getting there as a junior is what everyone shoots for," he said. "He is beginning to believe in himself and once he gets the confidence he can really do something. Before now, he was just kind of getting by on talent but once he gets his mind right he can really take off."

Hope has gone from a season best of 10-3 last season to 11-0 this year when she finished second at the Casa Grande Invitational on April 1.

But it almost came with an asterisk.

She cleared 10-9 and then Hope thought she cleared 11-0. Hope felt great about it only to find out the officials never raised the bar from 10-9. So she had to quickly refocus and go after the real 11-0 mark.

"I was frustrated at first because it was something I had been working really hard for," she said. "Then it was taken away and I had to do it again. Once I got it officially it was a big relief."

Hope, who plans on attending University of Redlands, a Division III program in Southern California, hasn't been able reach that height again but Guy said she is a perfect example of what pole vaulting is about.

"She has shown steady progress," he said. "She has developed into a team leader and worked extremely hard to get to her level."

Harmon's season has been a source of frustration after being one of the five Thunder athletes to clear 12-1 last season. The other four all graduated and received a scholarship to college.

She came into the season with the same type of expectations, but it hasn't materialized just yet as her best effort has been 10-7. Early in the season she wouldn't even attempt a vault as she just ran through to the mat instead of hitting her spot and taking off with the pole.

"It was definitely overwhelming at the beginning of the season thinking about college," said Hope, who plans on going to University of California-San Diego or UCLA. "It was kind of a whirlwind, but I had a talk with my parents and realized that I was getting stressed out and putting too much pressure on myself. I am letting that all go and just having fun now."

The new approach allowed her to reach 10-7 to win the Tempe All-City Meet.

"It's starting to come for her," Guy said. "She is persevering through a challenging senior year but is slowly making progress. You can't do something well until you can believe you can do it and Kylie is just now getting back into that state of mind."

Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or jskoda@ahwatukee.com

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Jason P. Skoda
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