In April, at Missoula’s Pilcher Top-10 Track and Field Meet, Helena High pole vaulter Chase Smith became the first prep athlete in the 111-year history of Montana track and field to crack the 16-foot barrier.
Smith later entered the State Track Meet in Kalispell as the prohibitive favorite, owning a PR of 16-5, that easily eclipsed the 27-year old all-class record of 15-9. But similar to an Olympian that only gets one shot every four years, state track records must be set at the state meets.
And like all great athletes, the HHS senior came through when the pressure was on, claiming the title with a launch of 16-4, while officially shattering the old mark of Helena’s Todd Foster by seven inches. In addition, Smith’s 10 points were vital in helping the Bengals to the AA team co-championship, with Flathead High.
Because of his epic, ground-breaking performances, Chase Smith, now a freshman for the University of Washington track team, is the Independent Record’s 2015 Male Athlete of the Year.
Season of record-setting firsts
As a junior, Smith won the Skor-DeKam Invitational with a (then) PR of 14-6, and went on to place as the 2014 State runner-up with a 14-0 clearance.
In the 2015 season’s home opener at Vigilante Stadium, the 6-foot-3 senior became the ninth Bengal — and first since Shane Willems in 2005 — to clear 15-feet, with a height of 15-6.
Then came the Pilcher Top-10, when he “Went where no man has gone before.”
First he cleared 16 feet, before soaring 16-5 — both on the first attempt — and shattering the old meet record of 15-0, set by Rafe Espinoza (Arlee) in 2001.
“Just another day in the neighborhood … it’s about time somebody cleared 16 feet,” he told the Missoulian. At the time his 16-5 was the eighth-best HS jump in the nation, and wound up at No. 22.
After no-heighting at the Swede Dahlberg Invite, Smith captured his second Skor-DeKam crown with a 15-7, erasing the 1988 meet record of 15-3 by Brian Plunkett (GFH).
His next record came at the Western AA Divisionals, when he again cracked the 16-foot mark, while eclipsing Capital’s Bobby Biskupiak’s 2006 meet standard of 15-2.
Then came the State Meet, and Smith’s final chapter of rewriting the record books.
“Coach Bill Hurford has definitely tailored my season and my training to peak at the right times,” he told the IR prior to State. “Obviously, Top 10 was a big meet and a peak, and then we had a little bit of a valley, and then we peaked again at Divisionals. This time, there’s no valley — we’re just gonna peak again at state.”
In Kalispell on that sunny Friday afternoon last May, yours truly was seated on the (vacated) awards bench in the infield of a nearly empty Legends Stadium, watching the conclusion of the boy’s Class AA pole vault competition.
After the last two competitors missed their final attempts at 14-feet-6, Smith — who hadn’t jumped yet — completed his warm-ups and prepared to enter at 15-feet.
It was about an hour after all the other events of the first day of the meet had concluded. Approximately 200 people remained in the stadium — mostly Capital City folks, including a lineup of CHS assistant coaches along the near fence — hoping to witness history.
As Smith readied his approach, I was reminded of Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw’s autobiographical words. During their final scoring drive of Super Bowl XIV in a come-from-behind 31-19 victory over the L.A. Rams for the Steelers fourth Lombardi Trophy, Bradshaw told himself: “Remember this.”
And time seemed to stand still as we experienced Smith’s relatively quick vault into legendary status, making 15-0 by two feet, 16-0 by nearly a foot, and then 16-4 — first attempt clearances, all.
“At 16 feet, coach Hurford started crying, and I was like, ‘Stop that; we’re not done yet,’” he related. “At 16-4 (the hip height of my last clearance), I knew I needed to get my foot farther back, and on that one my left foot hit my right hand.”
After two attempts going under the bar at 16-7, Smith had it raised to 17-0, which he didn’t miss by much.
Bengals’ head coach Tony Arntson had as much fun watching as anyone, stating, “Not too often you get three State championships (Jeremiah Coon in the 800, Connor Matthews in the 400 and Smith), two school records (Coon and Matthews) and a state record (Smith), all in the same day.”
“I just want to thank my friends, my coach and my family … I couldn’t have done it without them,” Smith said, following a group photo with Hurford, teammates Seth Sasser and Sam Roddewig, and his parents, Pete and Barb Smith. “I had a lot of fun today, and I’m glad it was a Helena High guy’s record and that I’m able to continue the legacy of our pole vault program.”
That legacy includes 13 State pole vault championships, three all-class records, and nine 15-foot vaulters.
Bill Prosser was the school’s first titlist, in 1920, with a state record of 11-3 3/4, using a bamboo pole and landing in a sawdust pit.
Next came Earle Parsons in 1938 and ‘40, Frank Ensign in 1954-55, John Peterson in 1964 with an all-class record of 13-7 (fiberglass pole, foam rubber pit), Todd Foster’s all-class mark in 1988, Ole Olson in 1995, Patrick Sandiland in 2002-03, Ryan Guazzo in 2005, T.J. Bomar in 2012 and Smith in 2015.
HHS’ 15-foot vaulters consist of Brian Schweyen, Cole Wilson, Geoff Ferguson, Foster, Hurford, Olson, Blain Birmingham, Shane Willems and Smith.
On the girls side, Helena owns eight titles, led by Shannon Agee, who 4-peated from 1995-98, with an all-class standard of 13-0, which still stands. Other Bengal girls garnering crowns include Julie Penner (2000), Alexandra May-Fraser (2006) and Terah Cundith (2012-13).
Something in the water?
So is there something in the water over at Helena High?
Not according to Rusty and Hal Harper, who vaulted for HHS in the 1960s, and whose family has been associated with the sport locally for over 50 years.
“At Helena High, coach Bill Hurford trained under previous pole vault coaches Doug ‘Old Man’ LeBrun and our dad, Reverend George Harper,” the Harpers wrote. “Their program dated back to the sixties, and it produced more State pole vault champions, meet winners, and records than any other.”
They recounted that after LeBrun and Harper both died several years ago, Hurford took over the event’s reins in 2012.
“The program needed fiberglass poles of the proper weights for his particular athletes, so Bill bought some with his own money,” related the brothers. “Bill coaches great vaulters, but he also wants them to be really good people. That’s what we have with Chase Smith.
“When not vaulting himself, you could always see him setting up the bar, giving tips, and encouraging the younger vaulters, as well as marking their takeoff foot and watching their grip.”
All the credentials
Smith received a full-ride scholarship to the University of Washington, the mecca of college pole vaulting. He graduated HHS with a 3.9 GPA, and plans on studying microbiology and anatomy.
University of Montana’s director of track and field, Brian Schweyen — who was the first man in the world to pole vault 17-feet and high jump 7-feet on the same day — said that it was “fantastic” for a Montana high schooler go over 16 feet.
“For Chase to jump as well as he did and be consistent was great to see, and being that he was a fellow Bengal is even better,” Schweyen said. “He has the physical tools and obviously the mental desire to be an incredible vaulter. I would guess that his ability to see himself visually and the confidence to reach great heights has been a large part of his success.
“His speed and size are great assets as a pole vaulter and when you add some really good coaching to that formula, you get the results that Chase showed last spring. And I anticipate he will have a great collegiate career as a Huskie and I look forward to following his success as he moves forward to higher heights.”
Over the summer, Smith raised his PR to 16-6 at the Last Chance Street Vault, and went 16-5 to place runner-up at the Junior Olympic National Championships in Jacksonville, Florida.
Smith said his first college meet takes place Jan. 16, and that he’ll use the Athlete of the Year selection as extra incentive.
“It (AOY) came out of the blue, honestly; it was the last thing I expected to get for Christmas,” he said. “It reminds me of why I need to stay focused going into my college career at UW.”