Long Beach State track and field head coach Andy Sythe has some advice for any pole vaulters out there.
“You have to be comfortable while being uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s about putting yourself in positions most people would be afraid of.”
Sythe should know. With an emphasis in the pole vault and high jump, he was the youngest NCAA Division 1 coach in the United States when he was hired in Long Beach at age 23 in 1989 and currently his men’s team has become a dynasty with three straight Big West Conference champions.
A big reason for that success is the pole vaulting duo of juniors Michael Montgomery and Conner Rouse, whom Sythe coaches and mentors. The two vaulters came to Long Beach on the same recruiting visit and Sythe sold them on the program.
“We talked about the history but the emphasis was the family atmosphere,” Sythe recalled. “The plan was to develop the group together and do something special.”
Montgomery and Rouse were undefeated in the BWC and finished 1-2 at Cal, USC and UCLA this season. After finishing 1-2 at the BWC Championships two weeks ago, they’re two of the 17 Long Beach State athletes moving on to the NCAA West preliminaries, which begin and run through Saturday at the University of Texas in Austin. The top 12 finishers in each event, including relays, advance to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at the University of Oregon’s historic Hayward Field on June 10-13.
“Coach Sythe (and the other assistants) have shown us what it’s going to take to reach our goals,” Rouse said. “And both of our goals have always been about reaching nationals.”
Rouse, a Vista native, gave up surfing before he started at Vista High and lettered all four years as a vaulter. He finished third in the pole vault at the 2012 CIF State Meet and established a pre-collegiate best of 16 feet. 3 inches, which ranked 20th among all high school athletes in the nation.
“I couldn’t even go straight at first,” Rouse said of his early vaulting experience. “There’s always a fear factor there, but I progressed quickly because I’ve had great coaches.”
After finishing 10th in the 2013 Big West Championships as a freshman, Rouse won the conference title as a sophomore with a lifetime-best 17-0 3/4. This year, he finished second in the conference behind Montgomery, who increased his lifetime best to 17-9, which ranks sixth in program history.
“It’s so nice to have Mike around because you can’t have your best day everyday and we’re always there to have each other’s backs,” Rouse said.
Montgomery said he was a “ball of energy” growing up in Moorpark and needed to find multiple athletic outlets. He played soccer for most of his life and was also a sponsored skateboarder from ages 12-16.
“I’m an air baby,” Montgomery said. “I use these activities to get away from it all. Vaulting is my safe haven.”
After clearing a state-best 15-3 as a senior at the CIF-SS Division 2 prelims, Montgomery registered a lifetime-best 16-0 3/4 as a freshman at Long Beach State. His win at the Big West Championships this season literally sparked the third straight win for the 49ers because it was the first event of the last day, and he cleared the bar in front of most of his teammates, who were waiting to compete.
“The mental side is most important,” Montgomery said of vaulting under pressure. “You visualize and see yourself making it. When I jump well I know it already because I thought about it all week. It’s just a replay of what was in my head.”
“These vaulters are the hardest-working group on the team,” Sythe said. “That culture of pushing each other only breeds success. I’m so proud of these guys because they’re getting it done in the classroom as well. This group has given me the most spectacular experiences as a coach.”
Sythe and the 49ers hope the good times keep on rolling in this weekend in Texas, where the vaulters aren’t the only great success stories.
The Long Beach State men have five dual-event qualifiers in senior Cameron Glasgow (400, 4×400), junior Michael Perez-Rogers (400, 4×400), junior Willie Alexander (long jump, triple jump), senior Jacob Fraser (shot put, discus) and senior Victor Martin (shot put, discus).
Glasgow, the 2015 Big West Men’s Track Athlete of the Year, owns the 15th-fastest seed time in the 400 as he ran a lifetime-best 46.39 to win the event at the conference championships. Perez-Rogers is also entered in the 400, while the duo will join forces with junior Dylan McCloskey and senior Jahmani Lockett in the 4×400, which owns a season-best 3:08.98.
Senior Chris Low returns to the regional meet in the 800 after advancing to last year’s NCAA finals and earning first-team All-America honors. Low ranks fifth in the West Region with a season-best 1:47.56. Also on the track, junior Devin Hickey rounds out the men’s track qualifiers as he will be running the 110 hurdles for the third year in a row.
In the other field events, Alexander, who was named the Big West Men’s Field Athlete of the Year and was the NCAA long jump runner-up in 2014, is back in that event for the third time. He ranks 11th with a lifetime-best 25-5 1/2, and is also set to compete in the triple jump. Senior Ryan Sanders also qualified for the triple jump. Sanders’ personal-record 51-9 1/4 is the 12th-best mark going into the meet.
Fraser qualified in both the shot put and discus for the third consecutive year. In addition, junior Kody Robison is set to participate in the hammer throw.
On the women’s side, junior Marina Shelton (hammer), freshman Jasmine Bass (triple jump), senior Taylor Jackson (long jump) and senior Jasmine Askew (400) all qualified for this weekend.
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