Larisa Debich’s senior season at Hempfield Area High School featured plenty of tears.
The pole vaulter cried when she cleared 12 feet, 8 inches, a height she had been trying to reach for two years. She cried when she won the PIAA outdoor championship, a gold medal that had eluded her until this season.
“I cried a lot this year,” Debich said “But it was all happy tears, which was good.”
Debich swept through Class AAA girls pole vaulting this spring, claming WPIAL and PIAA gold, and setting a WPIAL record in the process.
For these accomplishments, Debich has been selected as the Post-Gazette’s East Xtra Female High School Athlete of the Year.
Entering her senior season, Debich said she had two goals in mind: To clear 13 feet and to win the state championship.
She had cleared the 13-foot mark over the summer, but not in an official event. First, though, she had to clear the 12-8 mark that had caused her problems.
Debich finally made a 12-8 vault at the Lady Spartan Invitational April 13 and, at that point, knew she would clear the magic number of 13 feet. She even knew it would happen at her favorite event, the Baldwin Invitational.
“I’m going to jump 13 [feet] at Baldwin,” Debich recalls thinking in April. “I know I am, it’s just going to happen.”
Sure enough, when the Baldwin meet rolled around May 4, Debich didn’t just clear 13 feet, but she tacked on an extra quarter-inch for good measure. Her jump of 13-1/4 broke her own WPIAL record, but also proved her quite the prognosticator.
“I called it like a month earlier,” Debich said. “That was cool.”
Two weeks later, Debich won the WPIAL gold medal with a jump of 12-9. After that, the only mountain left to climb was the state title, a medal she desperately wanted after back-to-back runner-up finishes.
“She just, for whatever reason, could not hit any big jumps at outdoor states,” Hempfield pole vault coach Matt Fox said. “This year, it really meant a lot to her.”
Both Debich and Norwin’s Kasey Kemp successfully jumped 12-6 on their first attempts. On the second attempt at 12-9, Debich cleared and Kemp did not. At that point, Debich knew she had the title in the bag.
“I just knew that I was going to win,” she said. “That sounds cocky, but I knew I was going to win.”
She tried 13-3/4, which would have been a PIAA record, three times, but failed on all three attempts. Still, the jump of 12-9 was good enough to take home the gold.
“Out of all the things she won this year, I think that meant the most to her,” Fox said.
Debich will attend Auburn University this fall, where she will continue her pole vaulting career. Fox said the fact that Auburn was a Division I program looking to build up its women’s pole vaulting team gave Debich the unique chance to be a building block at a major SEC program.
Debich said she has already met her two fellow pole vaulters, and will even be living with one of them when she moves in Aug. 11.
“That’ll be fun,” Debich said. “My parents also really liked the academic lady [at Auburn]. She meets with us every week and is really on top of things.”
Debich has spent the summer driving all around the East Coast and Midwest competing in various events. She came in fourth at the New Balance Nationals in Greensboro, N.C., and sixth in the USA Track & Field Junior Outdoor Championships in Bloomington, Ind. In both meets, Debich’s performance garnered her All-American status.
All this is pretty good for a girl who got into the sport only after her first middle school track meet, when her team lost because it didn’t receive any points in the pole vault. Her coach suggested she give it a shot and, with her gymnastics background, Debich flourished.
“It’s kind of like gymnastics, which I’ve been doing since I was 3,” Debich said. “I like being in the air, it’s just fun.”
Fox said he’s confident his star pupil will have success at the next level.
“She’s got pretty much everything you look for in a pole vaulter,” he said. “I think she’s going to be a real nice addition to strengthen [Auburn’s] program. I think she’s up for the challenge.”
by: Sam Werner