EAST HAMPTON — All it took was a simple hello from Pat Rubega to East Hampton High School track coach Bill Wilkie about 10 years ago and a dynasty was born.
The two began talking when Rubega asked Wilkie if he had any pole vaulters on the team. Wilkie said there had been a few kids try it, but the school didn’t have the facilities or proper training regimen for the specialized event.
Six Bellringer athletes have combined to win nine state championships since 2008, including this year’s Class S champion Tyler Rubega — yes, Pat’s son.
“I liked track a lot and saw potential I had to do well in pole vault, so I went after it,” said Tyler, a senior.
When Pat first started building the pole vaulting program, he had a couple of extremely gifted athletes, namely Jeremy Luena and Chris Gliha. Pat describes Luena as a national-caliber gymnast and after working with him for two years, Luena was able to break the school record. As a senior in 2005, Luena finished second in the Class S outdoor meet with a jump of 12-foot-6. Gliha, who Pat calls an ‘extremely good athlete’, came along a couple of years later. The 2006 Class S state champion in the 55-meter hurdles jumped to a second-place finish in pole vault at the 2006 Class S outdoor championships.
Pat’s oldest son Ryan came along a few years later. Working with his dad, he improved from a seventh-place finish in the 2009 Class S outdoor meet (11 feet) to second place (12-foot-6) two years later.
“On the girls’ side, it was sort of a similar situation,” said Pat Rubega. “I had a couple girls to start who did well — we had a state champion [2008 graduate Meghan Nicolletta, now a vaulter at Southern Connecticut State]. A couple of years behind her we had someone up the record to a respectable 10 and a half feet, and then Amber [Sekoll] came along and broke that record.”
Sekoll became the first pole vaulter in East Hampton High School history to win two state championships when she did so in 2011. At the Class S indoor meet she jumped 10 feet for her first title and only a couple of months later at the outdoor championships, she flew a foot higher to cement her place as the top pole vaulter in Class S.
Just a few weeks ago at the Class S state championships in New Haven, Sekoll finished in second place with a jump of 10 feet while her teammates, junior Jordan Schuler and sophomore Whitney Rubega (Pat’s daughter), finished fourth and fifth, respectively. That event gave East Hampton 14 of their 22 team points, good for a sixth-place finish in the meet. “I was pretty comfortable with pole vault at first, which was kind of surprising, because I was actually really scared to do it,” said Sekoll.
It helps when the athletes ahead of you are doing well, Pat Rubega said, because then the younger kids look up to them and say ‘I can do that.’
Both Tyler Rubega and Sekoll say pole vaulting came naturally to them. Tyler qualified for the Shoreline Conference outdoor meet during the first event of the season and by the end of both of their outdoor seasons, both athletes qualified for the state championships. Sekoll finished ninth and Tyler Rubega finished 14th.
The immediate results were surprising, because East Hampton — like most schools in Connecticut — doesn’t have indoor facilities where students can practice jumping. The indoor season for most of the kids is going to a meet and jumping, as Pat Rubega pointed out, but that’s not how the Bellringers have stayed consistently on top the last few years.
Tyler and Sekoll, along with the rest of the East Hampton pole vaulters, practice at Skyjumpers Connecticut in Norwich a couple times a week during the winter months to improve their technique. The gym doesn’t have a full runway, but Tyler Rubega says it’s a great place to practice technique without taking a full jump.
The Rubega family describes the progression through pole vaulting as a pyramid. The base of that pyramid is going to ultimately determine how high you can jump.
“Natural speed is the biggest thing, but after that I call it coachability,” said Pat Rubega. “To be able to make physical adjustments in a process that takes a second and a half — from the time you initiate the jump to the time you land in the mat — there’s a lot going on.”
Two athletes Pat has worked with over the years come to mind who had “coachability”: senior Jared Daddario and 2012 graduate Ben DeCrescente.
“After two years he was picking up the fundamentals, but wasn’t progressing a lot,” Pat Rubega said of Daddario, a distance runner-turned-pole vaulter. “Over the last two years he became a really strong jumper.”
DeCrescente was another one of the national-caliber gymnasts Pat likes to work with, but “on the shorter side.” He is one of two male pole vaulters to win two state championships for East Hampton: back to back at the Class S outdoor meet in 2011 and 2012. The other is 2011 grad Nate Abraham, who’s currently vaulting at the University of Massachusetts. He won outdoor track titles in 2010 and 2011. Tyler Rubega remembers back to his freshman year when he wasn’t working out and says he was small. The winter of his junior year, when his brother came home from college during winter break, the two of them started working out in the family’s attic. A month went by and Ryan Rubega went back to college, but Tyler kept working out and realized that if he kept getting stronger, he could be a pretty good pole vaulter. That spring Tyler qualified for the New England championship meet after posting a jump of 13 feet at the state meet. Recently, Tyler says, they installed gymnastic rings in his house and contributed a lot of his recent success to the work he does with those. His technique has always been good, but the inversion part of his jump has greatly improved with the daily work on the rings.
“It’s more of a technique-based event,” said Tyler Rubega. “So if you don’t have the technique, but you have the athleticism, you’re going to do all right, but nowhere near anyone who has the technique mastered.”
And as the older vaulters get better, they start to help the underclassmen. It becomes a community that extends even outside of the team and among other vaulters in the conference.
“I think of all the events in track, the pole vaulters are definitely the closest,” said Sekoll.
Sekoll, along with the rest of her competition, all know each other and help one another out, whether it’s getting someone else’s step before the meet or giving them some pointers after a jump.
The recent blizzard postponed the Class S meet a few days and schools were closed for almost a week, which hindered the athletes when they were finally forced into competition on Valentine’s Day. Tyler Rubega’s winning height was 12-foot-6, only the third time all season he had gone under 13 feet.
“I didn’t have my best day. My friend from Old Saybrook who I jumped against didn’t have his best day either,” Tyler said.
The booster club and the parents have been a huge help to the success of the program over the last 10 years, according to Pat Rubega. The school’s pole collection comes mainly from boosters and poles donated by parents. Those poles don’t come cheaply, either — they can cost anywhere from $200 to $600.
Now entering their final season of pole vaulting, Tyler Rubega and Amber Sekoll want to leave their legacy behind and hope the East Hampton pole vaulting tradition continues.
“When that crew was in their sophomore season, I knew we were going to be in for a pretty wild ride for the next few years,” said Pat Rubega. “More success than we could have expected, it’s been a lot of fun.” Sekoll and Tyler Rubega may be two of the best pole vaulters East Hampton has had, but they are very different athletes. Tyler is strictly a pole vaulter, whereas Sekoll competes in any event Wilkie needs her. She even trained for the heptathlon last spring season, and hopes to do so again this year. Tyler says he plans on focusing on academics in college and jumping is not a top priority, but Sekoll can’t give it up just yet.
“I won’t go to a school I can’t jump at,” Sekoll said. “I just love it so much. I can’t picture myself not jumping.”