ERIE — Dylan Bilka was just a little short of his goal last season, so he decided to pick up the pace.
Bilka, a sophomore pole vaulter for the Penn State Behrend men’s track and field team, has himself on the cusp of besting his top jump from 2012 — 2 centimeters from the 16-foot threshold.
In his first two indoor meets this season — the Spire North Coast Open Jan. 19 and Spire Midwest Open Jan. 26, both in Geneva, Ohio — Bilka cleared 4.75 meters (15 feet, 7-1/64 inches to place first and third, respectively) to qualify for next weekend’s ECAC Championships.
“We expected to be over 15 feet because he did it last year, so it was great to see him do that right away,” Lions coach Greg Cooper said. “He’s attacked the pole and he’s doing all the little things right.
“His running has improved, which has translated into him improving,” Cooper added.
“Sixteen feet is one of my goals,” Bilka said. “I got off to a bit of a slow start last year. Collegiate training is a lot different than high school.
“My goal this year is indoor nationals (March 8-9). I missed it by two spots last year on a tiebreaker,” he added.
It’s something that has driven Bilka entering this season.
He was coming off a season where he set the school record and earned all-conference and all-ECAC.
His best leap outdoors last year was also a 4.86. He finished his freshman campaign ranked 12th indoors and 27th outdoors nationally.
“(Sixteen feet) was like a mental block,” Bilka said. “Missing by 2 centimeters stinks. That would be a good goal. … Sixteen would definitely put me up in he rankings nationally.
“As a sophomore, that would do well for my confidence,” Bilka added.
After a full year of working with pole vault coach Joe Sanford, Cooper and Bilka see the improvement will continue.
“Joe is one of the best pole vault (coaches) anywhere,” Cooper said. “I’m fortunate as a head coach because people improve under his guidance.
“We expected improvement, but the amount was more than we thought at this point. Last year, there were a couple of days of big jumps. This year, Dylan’s a much more consistent vaulter,” Cooper added.
Since his days at Seneca Valley, the benchmarks came with every foot.
“My goal in high school was 13 feet, then 14 feet, then 15 (his personal best in high school was 15-3 at the WPIAL finals) and now 16.”
And according to Cooper, he’ll reach that and continue to improve.
“He wants to be a student of his event,” said Cooper. “He wants to be the best at his event. He gets all the knowledge from Coach Sanford, from me and the other coaches.
“We have a saying here: ‘We do a lot of little, little things so we can do the big, big things.”