The skies above the vaulting pit at Buchanan High in Clovis will be filled with title hopefuls this weekend, as 31 of the state’s best female pole vaulters are scheduled to compete for the right to be crowned state champion.
For county track and field aficionados, the vault battle at the 2015 CIF State Track and Field Championships will have a familiar look.
Six of the competitors that have qualified for the state showcase compete on county soil.
The impressive county representation on the state’s biggest platform is a symbolic close to the best collective vaulting season ever produced in county history, one that has simultaneously showcased both the excellence of the present and the unbridled potential of the future.
One glance at the top of the season’s state leaderboard paints an even more accurate portrayal of just how strong the county has been this spring.
Five vaulters in the state have cleared 13 feet, unofficially considered a noteworthy benchmark clearance for female prep athletes.
Four of the athletes to achieve that lofty accomplishment are from Orange County, the first time that has ever happened in the same season.
The athlete at the top of the list of the Golden State’s elite vaulters in 2015 (and many other list of all-time greats) is Santa Margarita senior Kaitlyn Merritt, who will look to step to the top of state podium for the second time in her highly distinguished career.
The Stanford-bound vaulter is not only the county’s all-time record holder in the event, but has produced a standard of consistent excellence never before seen in the county.
When Merritt made her prep debut in 2012, only three girls in county history had cleared 13 feet.
Heading into the final CIF competition of her high school career, the state’s seasonal leader has equaled or surpassed that threshold height more than 20 times in invitational/league finals/non-CIF-SS prelims meets alone.
She admitted that the prospect of competing for the final time in an Eagles uniform hasn’t completely sunk in yet.
“It doesn’t feel almost real yet that this will be my last high school meet,” Merritt said.
Merritt’s official lifetime best in competition is 13 feet, 9 inches, the second best clearance in state history, trailing only former Castilleja High star Tori Anthony (14 feet, 1¼ inch at the 2007 state finals of her senior season).
Merritt is hopeful to produce a similar feat in her send off meet and will look to use her experience to help her achieve it.
“My body has done this so many times,” Merritt said. “Now its’ about getting that mental imagery and confidence going to line things up and have fun in my last meet.”
As Merritt looks to add the exclamation point on the end of her brilliant run, a trio of second-year vaulters has provided an exciting glimpse into what is shaping up an extremely bright future on the runway.
One source of that bright future is Merritt’s own sophomore teammate Kate Thomas.
After qualifying for the Masters Meet last year as a freshman, Thomas steadily improved throughout spring, placing in the top five at both the Trabuco Hills Invitational and the Arcadia Invitational.
Those results proved to be the catalyst for a historic day at the CIF-SS Division 3 finals, as Thomas was successful on her final attempt at 13 feet.
That jump gave Merritt and Thomas the distinction of being the first teammates in state history to clear that height in the same season.
The duo also made Santa Margarita the first school in county history to have two girls scale the milestone in the same season.
Watching the county’s all-time leader on a daily basis has admittedly motivated Thomas in her own individual quest for personal growth in the event.
“Seeing how hard Kaitlyn has worked has propelled me to want to work that hard too,” Thomas said. “She is a good role model to me and has set the bar high.”
Merritt has been impressed with her younger teammate’s performance and feels that she will continue to clear higher heights moving forward.
“I’m proud to be her teammate and to watch everything that she has done,” Merritt said. “Her personality makes me smile everyday and she is such a hard worker that brings it to the runway.”
“She will keep getting higher and higher and I can’t wait to watch the rest of her high school career.”
The rest of Thomas’ high school career should include many more fantastic battles with Canyon sophomore Rachel Baxter, who has gone from relative county obscurity to national preeminence this spring.
Baxter entered the season with a lifetime best clearance of 10 feet, 6 inches and did not advance past the CIF-SS Divisional Preliminaries in her debut campaign.
An offseason dedicated to personal improvement has given way to brilliant results in her second season.
Under the spotlight of the Arcadia Invitational in April, Baxter successfully jumped 13 feet for the first time.
A week later, she won the invitational title at the Mt. SAC Relays.
But those performances were a just prelude to the best day of her career to date.
An uncharacteristically rainy, windy, and cold day greeted the vault competitors at the Orange County Championships, but Baxter shined brightly. She not only cleared a lifetime best of 13 feet, 3 inches (the second best clearance in the state this season), but concurrently ended Merritt’s three-year reign at the county showcase in a head-to-head jump off.
The Comanches’ school record holder has continued to excel since her breakthrough at the Orange County Championships, clearing 13 feet, 1 inch twice more (including a Division 2 record effort at the CIF-SS Divisional Finals) and is looking forward to closing out her breakout season by competing for a state title.
“Given that I only qualified for prelims last year, winning at CIF-SS Divisional Finals, finishing second at Masters, and going to state is super exciting and special,” Baxter said.
Baxter also acknowledged that battling such elite talent throughout the season has tremendously benefitted her own vaulting.
“Having this competition has really pushed me to reach these higher heights and to the state meet,” Baxter said. “It’s nice to have these girls to compete against through senior year and into college.”
Mater Dei sophomore McKenna Caskey announced her arrival onto the county vault scene with an impressive bang last season, setting a Monarchs school record with a clearance of 12 feet, 9 inches to win the CIF-SS Division 2 title.
That performance was the second best clearance in county history among all first year vaulters behind only Merritt and propelled her to qualify for the state meet.
Caskey picked up where she left off last season and then some, joining the rarified company of the 13-foot clearance club in a duel meet against Santa Margarita on March 26.
In a long season of several high intensity competitions, maintaining resolute focus on a central objective has fueled her second consecutive trip to Clovis.
“Having a good attitude has been the key for me,” Caskey said. “At this point in the season, I’ve practiced all-year round and it can get tiring.”
“But having a good positive attitude makes working hard worth it.”
With so many talented performers vying for the same goal week in and week out, the development of potentially bitter rivalries would seem only natural.
But all four girls stated in similar fashion that there is a supportive camaraderie amongst the quartet regardless of the outcome.
“We’re all pretty close and having other athletes that jump high makes it a fun competition,” Caskey said. “Winning is nice, but jumping a PR can still make the competition fun even if you don’t win.”
Thomas, who has trained with and competed against Caskey since middle school, echoed similar sentiments.
“We are all friendly, supportive, and push each other,” Thomas said.
As the county’s historic foursome takes to the runway for the final time in high school this weekend, Merritt expressed a deep sense of pride with the overall direction the event is heading.
“Pole vaulting is an up and coming event and it’s awesome to be part of that and to watch the other girls,” Merritt said. “Girls are hitting higher heights and I think the sky is the limit.”
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