McAllen High pole vault coach Louie Cantu was standing on the basketball court at Morris Middle School when he found perhaps his most prized prospect. As Josiah Martinez attempted a layup, raising his top hand and driving his knee toward the basket, Cantu detected special potential.
“When I first saw him do that, I was like, ‘OK, I need you to come and try pole vault,’” Cantu said. “’You’re going to really like it.’”
Then a seventh grader, Martinez was skeptical, having no idea what pole vault was or how it worked. But he chose to take Cantu’s advice, and in less than two years he’s developed into one of the most promising athletes his coaches have ever seen.
After setting a TAAF Region 2 meet record for his age range with a jump of 13 feet, 2 inches on July 8, the 14-year-old Martinez took home third in the boys 16 and under pole vault at the Games of Texas last week with a mark of 12-6. His next challenge comes this morning at the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Humble, where he will face some of the best 15- and 16-year-olds from across the nation. He begins his freshman year at McAllen High this fall.
“It’s once in a lifetime that you get kids like him that are having that success this early,” Cantu said.
Through every step of the process, Martinez has proven a natural, or at least a fast learner.
First, Cantu worked Martinez on suspended ropes and rings, testing his core strength and comfort with being upside down. Martinez quickly graduated to the pit, where he said he struggled to learn proper form and how to plant the pole correctly. His coaches say he ironed out the kinks faster than most.
“It was fun,” Martinez said. “A couple of my friends did it, too, and they couldn’t really get the hang of it. But I got the hang of it pretty quick.”
The next step in Martinez’s development was to improve his speed and agility with coach Ivan Archer and 956 Training. Archer’s first impression was that Martinez had the ideal lean, lanky frame and was talented, but raw. While Martinez accomplished athletic feats rare for his age, he had more of a “bounding” running style, Archer said.
Seeing that Martinez had a “really, really good stride,” Archer just had to work on his fast twitch ability, training him to snap his legs down as quickly as possible.
“He made it pretty quickly. A lot quicker than I thought,” Archer said. “Once he started being more tough mentally, that was when you saw his progression get a lot better.”
Martinez hit 9-6 during his seventh grade year, surpassed 11 at his final eighth-grade meet and has added more than 2 feet in the two months since the end of the school year. Much of that recent increase can be attributed to his work with independent coach Gene Riley, a former collegiate vaulter who has been training athletes in the Valley for more than 30 years.
Riley describes Martinez as quiet and hard working. Their sessions are mostly trial and error, with Martinez vaulting and then discussing any mistakes with Riley. Under Riley’s tutelage, Martinez has already pushed the limits of five different poles, graduating to greater lengths and tension strengths with unusual ease.
While most athletes his age are taking a 10-step approach, Martinez starts his vaults with a 14-step run.
Martinez has made these strides while nursing an injured hip flexor, although Cantu said the injury has been a positive in many ways. Unable to compete in the hurdles, Martinez has increased his focus on the finer points of pole vault.
“He has a lot of ability, so therefore I would have to say that Josiah can pretty well do whatever he wants,” Riley said. “If he stays like he is now, he will be a very good vaulter. Not just his freshman year, but I’m talking about by the time he’s a senior. He will do tremendous.”
Martinez’s personal best mark of 13-2 would have ranked near the top 10 among Valley high school athletes last season, and he set the mark without even realizing it. At the TAAF regional meet, Martinez thought he was jumping at 13, a mark he had hit before. But Riley and Cantu realized that the meet record for the age group was 13-1, so they had officials raise the bar to 13-2 without Martinez’s knowledge. When Martinez cleared it, he was at first confused by the reaction.
“Everybody was clapping and everything, but I didn’t know what was going on,” Martinez said. “I was like, ‘I’ve been over that.’ I had asked the guy who was running it, and he said that was 13-2, and I set a new record.”
Keeping Martinez in the dark about the height helped him overcome one of the biggest hurdles he’s faced to this point in his young career: nerves. His other big challenge will be developing strength as he matures, particularly in his core, coaches said.
Martinez said his goal for high school is to jump 14 or 15 feet, enough to earn a college scholarship.
Archer said Martinez could be one of the better hurdlers to come out of the Valley, and Cantu and Riley envision him someday hitting 16 feet or more on the pole vault. The Valley record is 16-2 1/2, set by Harlingen South’s Jared Ede in 2005.
“What I think he’s capable of doing, if he continues going the way he is, is breaking the Valley record,” Riley said.