Isabella deBruin is prepared for a different outcome in her return to the CIF State Track and Field Championships.
The Justin-Siena pole vaulter, Napa County’s only representative in the meet for the second year in a row, wasn’t at the top of her game when she made her state meet debut at Buchanan High School’s Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis last year.
“I was very, very sick that day. I was throwing up all morning,” the senior recalled Wednesday. “It was really a bad stroke of luck, and not great timing. I went to BottleRock that weekend, and it was non-stop, no sleeping, so probably a bad idea.”
Despite clearing 11 feet, 3 inches to win the CIF North Coast Section Redwood Empire subsection title and 11 feet to place second at the NCS Meet of Champions in the weeks before states last year, she did not clear the opening height of 11-2 in any of her three attempts in the state trials. Eight other girls cleared 12-2 and a dozen others cleared 11-8.
She said Andrew Avellar, a UC Davis pole vaulter in the 1980s who is now in his sixth season coaching the event at Justin-Siena, was casual during that early trip home from the Fresno area.
“It was just ‘We’re going to try again next year.’ He’s not disappointed in a performance when I don’t do well because he knows how hard it is to be a pole vaulter,” deBruin said. “We knew we were going to have another chance and that we were going to make it better next time. I wasn’t too broken up about it. I slept a lot after that, and I felt pretty good about my season. I felt like I really did what I wanted to do, minus the very last meet, of course.”
Her best mark was a school record 11 feet, 4½ inches at last year’s Marin County Athletic League Championships — until two weeks ago, when she surpassed that easily with an 11-9 at the NCS Redwood Empire meet.
The opening height at Friday’s state trials — which have been pushed back from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. due to the 100-plus temperatures in the forecast — will be 11-6, so once again she won’t need a school record right off the bat.
“For others, a higher starting height is going to mess with their minds,” Avellar said. “I’ve talked to other coaches and they’re all upset about them raising the starting height, but I knew Isabella would be thrilled with it. Starting higher will give her more energy for those higher bars.”
DeBruin agreed, saying “My highest jump is usually the first one.”
Will walk on at Cal
She recently committed to UC Berkeley to major in environmental science, having been invited to walk on to the track and field team as a pole vaulter, and said the interest from the Golden Bears has helped take pressure off her during the postseason.
“It made me really happy, because I wasn’t positive I would be able to get on a team if went to a Division I school,” she said. “It helped that we had connections. We’re kind of a community (of pole vaulters) that’s relatively tightly knit. It made me realize this is not the end. If I choke or screw up at the state meet, I don’t have to stop vaulting the rest of my life.”
Said Avellar, “That’s one reason she’s having success in the postseason. She’s not worried about it. We’re pretty confident about making it through to the finals every meet, whether she PRs (gets a personal record) or not. Our goal on Friday will be to make the top 12 and get to the finals, then on Saturday it will be to make it to the podium (earn a medal as a top-six finisher). Every day is a simple goal.”
Avellar — whose older daughter, 2014 Justin-Siena graduate Natalie Avellar, vaulted for the University of Texas — thinks Cal likes deBruin because of her ability to get the state meet twice in a row.
“In college, their biggest concern is how you perform in big meets,” he said. “You might have jumped higher in a dual meet somewhere, but they want you to score points in big meets, and Isabella is going to be consistent, perform under pressure and score points.”
At the subsection meet, deBruin had actually already clinched first place by clearing 11-6.
“I love being driven by the competition, and it was down to me and one other girl,” she recalled.
But the winner gets three attempts at a higher bar to try to increase their PR and wow the crowd. That’s when she cleared 11-9, and then barely knocked the bar down at 12 feet.
“We’ve calculated her speed and the energy she creates and how much force with the pole she’s on, and think she’s capable of jumping 12 feet,” Avellar said. “It could be higher than that if the jump all comes together at the right time. It would be very possible for her to PR at (12-3 or 12-6). That jump is in her. It’s just, are we going to get it on that day?”
DeBruin hopes to be one of those track and field athletes who ends their seasons on a high note, though it’s not always easy.
“Sometimes I think it’s your physical condition, if you’re not hydrated or well rested enough — that, and you’re mentally and physically worn down,” she said of what keeps an athlete from finishing their season with a PR. “The other half of the equation, which I think has more of an effect on me, is you psyche yourself out and you’re a head case and you put a lot of pressure on yourself. You build up this big event in your mind until the pressure gets to you and sometimes you crack.
“I’ve always been naturally good at tests and school, but not naturally good at athletics. I had to really change my body and habits a lot to fit the type of mold that helped me be successful in this arena.”
Heading to state relaxed
She said the pressure has actually been off her for several weeks now.
“I haven’t really stopped pushing down the pedal, but I’ve been done with school for about a month. I haven’t had any finals because I took all AP classes. So I don’t have as many distractions,” she said.
She said being the only local athlete left makes her feel proud, not stressed.
“It makes me feel good, but I don’t think it makes me more nervous in any way,” she said, “because just saying I’m the only one from Napa County isn’t going to change anything about where I’m going or what I’m going to do — I hope. I don’t want to think about it like that.”
Besides, she’s made sacrifices that others who didn’t last this long may have not made.
“I’m missing the bonding experiences of senior year,” she said. “I didn’t go on our senior trip because I wanted to be fresh and rested for a meet. I’m not going to go to Grad Night or any of the parties people are going to throw because I’m going to be in Fresno. I’m leaving for Europe on Monday, so I won’t even be in the country for the first half of the summer when everyone is still having fun together. I’m a little sad I’m going to miss out on those things, but it’s a trade-off because I like where I’m going.”
Last June, deBruin attended a Sacramento camp run by Stacy Dragila, the Auburn native who won the first-ever gold medal in women’s pole vaulting at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. After that, she accepted an invitation from Dragila to travel with her and other young pole vaulters to Boston to promote the event.
Avellar said deBruin has inspired other seniors and younger teammates to try the pole vault.
“Fear is one of the biggest things we have to deal with that keep kids from performing at their peak, and being fearless or really confident, whatever Isabella is, has helped her to advance so quickly,” the coach said.
“Some kids, when I say ‘Grip up on a bigger pole,’ Isabella just does it because it’s the right thing to do. If you say that to another kid, they might say ‘Oh my gosh, what’s going to happen? I’m afraid,’ and it falls apart. Isabella says ‘If that’s what I need to do, that’s what I’ll do.’”
“It exhilarates me,” deBruin said. “I just need to stop thinking about it, and do it.”
Ankle injuries from landing wrong that hampered deBruin last year have been replaced by an occasional, much milder, turf toe problem.
“What she’s done when we were not at practice was equally as, or more important than, when we’ve been together from 3 to 5 p.m. — the conditioning, the weightlifting,” Avellar said. “What she was doing was getting ahead of others.”