Looking for a competitive outlet after a torn hamstring ended her budding career as a gymnast, Kaitlin Petrillose began her high school years as a cross country runner. She enjoyed it — for reasons entirely unrelated to the actual running.
“On our long runs, I’d stop and pick up flowers and go on nature walks,” confessed Petrillose, a McNeil graduate and current sophomore at Texas. “I wasn’t very fond of cross country.
“Yep, the story’s out,” she added with a laugh. “I did train — a little bit — but the flowers were so pretty, I couldn’t resist.”
So while her cross country career never bloomed, everything still turned up roses. At the suggestion of McNeil coach Chris Cotten, she took up the pole vault and now has a chance to go where no Longhorns female has ever gone.
In the Texas women’s storied history at the NCAA track championships there have been only four events in which the Longhorns have never scored points — the heptathlon, hammer throw, steeplechase and pole vault. If Petrillose finishes in the top 12 at the three-day NCAA West preliminary rounds, which open Thursday at Myers Stadium, she’ll have a chance to remedy that omission in the vault at the June 5-8 national semifinals and finals in Eugene, Ore.
The Austin meet will host 806 female athletes representing 102 schools and 872 male athletes from 97 schools. They come from NCAA Division I programs located essentially west of the Mississippi River. Seven of the top 10 ranked men’s teams will be in attendance, and six of the top 10 women’s teams. Texas’ men are ranked eighth in the most recent poll of the coaches association, while the women are 11th.
The East preliminary rounds will be held concurrently in Greensboro, N.C.
The Texas men have the nation’s top-ranked shot-putter in sophomore Ryan Crouser, who broke the school and Big 12 meet records with a heave of 69 feet, 2½ inches.
The Longhorns also have the top decathlete in freshman Johannes Hock, although the 10-event competition won’t be contested here and the nation’s top 24-ranked decathletes will go straight to Eugene. In his only collegiate decathlon, Hock piled up 8,293 points at the conference meet.
Coach Bubba Thornton’s team also welcomes back senior high hurdler Keiron Stewart, whose only race this season ended with a hamstring injury that didn’t prevent him from recording a 13.51 clocking that ranks seventh nationally and fourth in the West.
Stewart said he doesn’t expect to be rusty despite being out of competition since March 27.
“When you’re born ready, you don’t have to get ready,” Stewart said. “I’ll get back in the groove this weekend.”
At the Big 12 championships on May 3, Petrillose put herself in position to challenge for points at the national meet. She won the competition with a school-record clearance of 14 feet, 3½ inches, which ranks fifth nationally and third in the West region.
“I definitely feel more comfortable now (about the chances of scoring at nationals),” said Petrillose, who also won the Big 12 indoor championship with a vault of 14-2½. “Before the Big 12 outdoor meet, I didn’t think I was quite ready because I was still trying to adjust to some new poles. But I did great, so now I think I’m ready for nationals.”
First, though, she must survive and advance this weekend, and prove her showing at the Big 12 meet in Waco was not a one-time blip on the radar.
Her coaches believe she will.
“She actually had a 14-5 jump cleared, but she kind of touched the bar with her hand on the way down,” interim women’s head coach Rose Brimmer said. “She’s very capable of 14-6 or 14-7.”
Brian Elmore, a volunteer vault coach who tutored Petrillose in high school and now works with her and fellow vaulter Natasha Masterson at UT, thinks Petrillose has the potential to continue improving this season.
“You get to this meet and you see 48 vaulters who are all fairly good,” Elmore said. “If she can handle that pressure and gets out, she’s got a shot to compete.”
The field includes four vaulters from the school where Petrillose spent her freshman season, the University of South Dakota. The powerhouse vault contingent, coached by three-time Olympic vaulter Derek Miles, includes the nation’s No. 1 vaulter in junior Bethany Buell, whose top mark of 14-7½ came at the Texas Relays in late March.
South Dakota, Petrillose said, “was a great opportunity and a great place to be.” But she felt she had to return home to be close to her mother, who was fighting a serious illness. Petrillose’s two brothers are serving in the military, and her sister also is attending college out of state.
“I really needed to be here for her,” Petrillose said of her mother, who Kaitlin added “is much better now.”
“UT was the only place I was looking at,” she added. “If Texas didn’t want me, I was just going to look around the Austin area for someplace else, so I could stay close.”
NCAA WEST REGIONAL
Thursday-Saturday, Myers Stadium, field events start at noon, running events at 4:30 (Thursday and Friday) and 6 p.m. (Saturday), all-session tickets are $25 adults/$15 youth, single-day tickets $10