High school track & field: State College pole vaulters ready for trip to state championships

— It doesn’t take long to realize they are two very different personalities.

Lucas Gray is quiet, a young man of few words with a steady demeanor.

Griffin Thompson is emotional, ebullient and has plenty to say.

“Polar opposites,” said State College assistant track and field coach Joe Sarra, who leads the pole vaulters.

The approach may be different, but they had the same results last week.

The two Little Lion juniors finished 1-2 in the pole vault at the District 6 Class AAA Championships, both clearing 14 feet, 3 inches, and both earning spots at the PIAA Championships later this week.

They are looking to land medals when they compete at 12:30 p.m. Friday at Shippensburg University’s Seth Grove Stadium.

Gray is a thrill-seeker. He loves extreme sports like going downhill on skis or a mountainbike.

“It’s always nice to get the adrenaline rushes,” Gray said.

But the quiet demeanor also serves him well in competition, staying steady regardless of how well is doing.

“Lucas is much more of a relaxed, doesn’t get too high, doesn’t get too low, really stays in the moment type of vaulter,” said Sarra, who also will be coaching the state’s top female vaulter, Megan Fry, on Saturday. “It makes the competition easy for him. Nothing is too big, nothing seems to phase him. He’s a gamer, but you don’t see it. It doesn’t come out.”

Lucas was the district champion, thanks to fewer misses, despite being the lower seed. An all-around athlete who also throws the javelin, he hit a setback with a foot injury after the end of the indoor season last year, forcing him to miss all of last spring’s events. It took a while to get used to running without the brace on the foot, and that made progress this year a little sluggish.

It finally came together at the Mid Penn Championships two weeks ago, when Thompson and Lucas also went 1-2, reversing the order from the district finish.

“We knew he had the potential to go high,” Sarra said. “It was just a matter of everything coming together.”

Thompson, on the other hand, has been preparing for a chance like this most of his life. The son of Penn State women’s gymnastics coaches Jeff and Rachelle Thompson, he has been immersed in a life of fitness and imbued with an intricate knowledge of the art of jumping few his age have. He knows all about swing dynamics and how to create energy throughout a jump. He practices on the bars or trampoline at the gym, he helps coach at Centre Elite Gymnastics and even coaches a class in pole-vaulting gymnastics. He also breaks down vaulting videos with his father, discussing both the track and gymnastic sides of his attempts and looking for ways to improve.

Plus, it helps he has the muscle training, especially in his core, for the intricate details that go into the jumps.

“A lot of the smaller muscles that you usually don’t work in your daily life get worked in gymnastics,” Thompson said. “Going to pole vault, I had some of that built up. Going into my fourth year, that’s adding into it, but it was a great foundation for me.”

And while Gray may be the quiet, steady one, Thompson feeds off the emotions of the moment and is looking forward to the big crowd egging him on at the stadium on Friday.

In a competition at the Shippensburg Invitational last year, as he was about to take a turn, someone in the bleachers began a slow clap and the rest of the crowd joined in. He ended up hitting a personal-best 13-6 on that jump.

“That was probably my favorite memory in pole-vaulting,” Thompson said. “You just had that whole crowd there watching, you could feel everyone’s eyes on you. You just get revved up, take those first steps, hit your hands and you just feel yourself flying.”

It is feeding off those moments, and coming up with big performances in big meets, that makes Sarra think Thompson can go even higher on Friday.

“Any given moment Griffin can pop out something he hasn’t done before because he has that emotion,” Sarra said. “He can (hit a personal best) by a foot, foot-and-a-half on any given day.”

Thompson agrees, thinking he can surpass his personal best of 14-6.

“I think 15 is definitely where I should be,” Thompson said. “I think I can definitely see myself jumping 15-6 or even higher.”

Gray has a more modest goal – at least what he says out loud – of 14-6.

“Whatever height I get I think I will be happy,” Gray said, “because I will be at States.”

Both will be happy to have each other there. Away from the crowd on the infield, they will be relying on each other to hit their best marks.

“We’ve always been battling each other,” Thompson said. “It’s great to know both of us have reached this new height of 14 feet. … We’re pushing each other. If you’re doing bad, you look over and see him doing great, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do great too.’”

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