FREDERICKTOWN — For the past three years, the Fredericktown High School track and field team has sent a pole vault representative to the Division III State Championships. This year is no different, with one exception.
Junior Katelyn Newkirk makes her third straight appearance on Friday, while senior Gary Gregg will be making his first on the state stage. Both pole vaulters have the same goal in mind — make it to the podium.
Gregg’s appearance alone is something special. The Freddies have not had a boys pole vaulter make it to the state meet in over a decade.
“It has been probably 15 to 18 years since we had a guy make the state tournament in pole vault,” said Fredericktown pole vault coach Tim Cothren. “It is past due. We’ve had kids that have been close. Gary is kind of the exception this year; he managed to make it in, which feels real good.”
“This is a lot fun,” said Gregg. “A lot of people have helped me get there, so this means a lot. It is so exciting.”
Gregg has come a long way this season. He cleared 11 feet at the 2008 regionals, and reached 12 feet last week.
“The thing with Gary is he has worked so hard this entire year,” said Fredericktown boys coach Will Hartley. “Going all the way back to the indoor season, he had a great offseason. He worked really hard in the weight room, and has done anything the coaches have asked.”
“My strength and conditioning were a lot better,” Gregg said. “Coach Hartley did a good job of getting my legs ready. A lot of people think it is only 75 feet, but the vault itself takes a lot out of you. That’s why it is tough. ... It takes a group effort to get me ready.”
Gregg was not only a pole vaulter this season. He ran on the Freddies 4x200-meter and 4x400-meter relay teams at regionals and also ran on the 4x100-meter relay team throughout the season.
“The general conditioning of doing three or four events in a night has helped him, especially when you get to the state level,” Hartley said. “When you are only competing in one event, I think you’ll find yourself fresher. He only has to focus on the pole vault, and he won’t have to focus on the relay teams or an open run.”
“Running the 4x200 and the 4x400, the distance will kill your legs faster than anything else,” Gregg said. “You run a couple of those in a meet and then 75 feet feels pretty good. It keeps me in great condition.”
For Newkirk, she is hoping the third time is the charm. She set the district record at 10 feet less than two weeks ago, and cleared 9-6 at regionals.
“It hit me on Saturday,” said Newkirk. “I was in the kitchen and it dawned on me, ‘Next week, I’m going to be at state again.’ It brought back all the memories I had of Brittany and Corinne. now it is just going to be me and my pole and my coach. I just hope I can do the best I possibly can.
“I’m still as excited as I was last year, but my freshman year, I could hardly believe it,” Newkirk added. “There was so much excitement, but I almost felt like I wasn’t deserving because these girls are so amazing. Now, I feel like I am a part and I belong there. I have a spot there waiting for me and I’m going to take it. ... It is an honor to be there.”
Newkirk believes she has what it takes to compete with the best in the state. She tied for eighth last year, clearing 10 foot. That came after finishing 16th as a freshman (8 foot).
“My expectations for myself are not to be crazy nervous, even though sometimes it seems to help me,” said Newkirk. “I’m happy to be there, and I expect to focus and do my best. Also, I want to clear at least 10 foot; that’s my personal goal. Anything better than 10 would be awesome too.”
Nerves can be a major issue in a setting like Jesse Owens Stadium. At any given moment during the competition, as many as 20,000 eyes could be fixed on you. Newkirk has learned to deal with the environment and the competition. Gregg, experiencing the state meet for the first time, isn’t quite as fortunate.
“When you are sitting there waiting, it looks so easy — like they are just floating,” said Newkirk. “I look at them and they look like they have it under control. Then I look to my left and see this big crowd of color — all these kids and parents — just sitting there watching. It feels like everybody’s eyes are on you. It you hit the bar, you expect everybody to go, ‘Oooooohhhh,’ and that is what you don’t want. Then I look to the right and I see my family along the fence, and I get over it. That’s what feels good.”
“They will still be nervous,” said Cothren. “I don’t think you ever get over that, especially when you go to a meet like the state. Katelyn should do fine; she’s been there before. And Gary does pretty well at dealing with his nerves. I don’t see it being too much of a problem.”
They two vaulters at least have each other. Newkirk will go first, competing on Friday at 1 p.m., which will give Gregg some time to soak in the competition. Gregg competes at 4 p.m. Having someone to relate to has helped in his preparation.
“This means a lot,” said Gregg. “It gives me a little bragging rights with Katelyn. ... We help each other a lot. We watch what one person does and then try to help correct that. ... We are all trying to improve.”
“I think they can share quite a bit (with one another),” Cothren said. “Each one has areas that they need improvement on, and it seems like the other one can help them in that area. It works out well. ... They don’t seem to get all tensed up about one event or the other. That helps their confidence. They keep things light and that keeps the pressure from building up.”
By the time Gregg competes, he will have had nine days off from his regional appearance. While for many athletes that would be a hindrance, for Gregg it is a blessing.
“I think (the time off) will help me,” said Gregg. “Usually I beat my body to death during the week, and pole vaulting is kind of the shun off thing. Now it is nice because I get to focus on pole vault.”
“I think (it is a psychological thing),” said Hartley. “His workload is going to be greatly reduced on Friday, but still, the pole vault is a taxing event. It is a very mental event; it is a tough event mentally, technically and physically. Running down the run way and then actually jumping takes a lot of energy, a lot more than you think.”
The competition will be tough for both Gregg and Newkirk. Gregg’s best is still 2 1/2 feet lower than the state’s top Division III qualifier, but that isn’t stopping him.
“It is a big jump,” said Gregg. “A lot of guys won their district with like 14 feet. I don’t think I’ve peaked yet, but two feet in vaulting is a lot. You can go from winning your district to being fourth in the region just like that. The competition is stiff. ... I think there is a lot more there. I’ve done it in practice, but I haven’t been able to transition it to a meet setting.
“I’m looking for 13 or 13 feet and some change; I’d also like to stand on the podium,” added Gregg. “It is going to be a great atmosphere. My biggest fear is getting my plant straight and making it to the pit.”
Newkirk will also have to improve if she wants to be back on the podium. Her district record (10 foot) would place her in a tie for seventh based upon the qualifiers.
“I hope I haven’t peaked. I know if I set my mind to it, with the help of my coaches, I can get better than I have,” said Newkirk. “I know I can get 10, but I think I can go much higher. Even if it is physically impossible, if they raise the bar, I’m going to go with it.”
Cothren, who has worked with both Newkirk and Gregg, believes both athletes are capable if greater heights. They just have to believe they can do it and work their hardest.
“They are nowhere near where they can compete,” said Cothren. “If we had a little more time to work with them with a little better weather, we could probably do a lot better. But here, you take what you can get.
“I really don’t put that much pressure on them,” Cothren added. “They made it this far — the top 16 in the state — so this is just icing on the cake. I just want them to have a good time and put together a good performance.”