VERMILLION, S.D. | Three trips to the Olympics and very nearly four will stand forever as a glowing tribute to his career as an athlete.

Now, at age 40, just a year removed from that final bid for Olympic hardware, Derek Miles has transitioned impressively to his next world-class endeavor, coaching arguably the strongest crew of female pole vaulters ever assembled in American college track and field.

With prelims and finals in the women’s pole vault slated for today’s opening session at the Summit League Outdoor Championships, Miles will send no less than five athletes into the competition at University Track in Muncie, Ind.

And, of those five, a remarkable four performers, all underclassmen, are ranked among the top 25 in the nation this spring — a group headed up by junior Bethany Buell and sophomore Emily Grove, who were both All-Americans in last year’s NCAA Outdoor, finishing third and seventh, respectively.

“You have a total of 32 athletes you can take to an outdoor championship meet,’’ explains Miles, a former world champion with three U.S. titles to his credit. “If 10 of them are pole vaulters, you can really take 10 pole vaulters.

“In a conference meet, you like to have athletes that can do four different events to score that many more points. But we’ve always been invested in the pole vault and all four of them are pretty secure for the first round of the national meet. We’re just trying to bring home as many points from the pole vault as possible.’’

With 39 total team points awarded for the top eight finishers in each event, Miles and Lucky Huber, USD’s head women’s coach, aren’t being greedy with hopes of getting 25 or more from Buell and Grove along with true freshmen Madison Mills and Hunter Wilkes plus junior Megan Meyer.

Buell, a St. Louis native, cleared a personal best of 14 feet, 7.5 inches in her outdoor season debut March 27 at the Clyde Littlefield Texas Relays. Well over a month later, that effort still ranks her first on the NCAA Division I season leader list.

Grove, meanwhile, is 12th in the nation with a season best of 14-0 while the freshman newcomers, Wilkes and Mills, rank 21st and 25th with efforts of 13 feet, 5.75 inches and 13 feet, 5.25 inches.

Unfortunately, Buell injured her left shoulder while warming up in Texas and then aggravated it further in workouts less than a week later. Three weeks of rest brought some improvement, but a recent MRI revealed a torn ligament. Nonetheless, Miles and Buell have both agreed to see how she can do today, shortening her approach from 16 steps to 12.

“The doctors say that structurally, if we can do some strengthening things, the shoulder can be held together,’’ said Miles, a native of Bella Vista, Calif., 90 minutes from the Oregon border. “So, we’ll proceed as the pain allows and go slow. We’ll see how we go. If we can get through the meet successfully without being injured or feeling any more damage, then I think that will be a good sign.’’

Sticking with the shorter approach may be unavoidable and it could certainly prevent Buell from winning a national title during the NCAA meet June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. Still, for the moment, Buell and her coach are simply testing things out in Muncie, where she still thinks she can repeat as the conference champ (she cleared 14 feet, one-half inch to win last year in Fargo, N.D.).

“I feel pretty good, actually,’’ said Buell, a former Missouri state champion at Rockwood Summit High School of St. Louis. “Practices have been going better than I anticipated. At this point, we’re not looking for personal bests. I think my goal is just scoring points for the team.’’

“Even from the short run, she’s still been around 14 feet,’’ noted Miles. “But we’re not going to do anything that would jeopardize the next year for her. If it turns south we’ll look at our next options and maybe we’ll just shut the season down.’’

The 5-foot 4-inch Buell, like many in her sport, found her way into pole vaulting after several years in gymnastics. The 5-foot 6-inch Grove, a native of Pontiac, Ill., 90 minutes southwest of downtown Chicago, had no such training. Instead, she was inspired by the opportunity to watch former Pontiac High School star Phil Hanson, a state champion who soared over 17 feet even before his college career at Northern Iowa.

“My girlfriend and I were on the junior high team and we got out of doing our workout to go watch him and learn the pole vault,’’ said Grove, who wound up winning two Illinois state titles, arriving at USD with a P.R. of 13-5 already under her belt.

“Bethany’s carrying some decent speed and she has a great gymnastics background,’’ said Miles. “That kind of allowed her to figure out the sport pretty quickly.

“Someone like Emily, who doesn’t have much of a gymnastics background, just has a lot of power and she brings a lot of that power and aggressiveness into the jump.’’

Miles and Huber recruited Wilkes from Chandler, Ariz., and Mills from Reno, Nev., and both newcomers are already on the verge of reaching 14 feet.

And, USD’s impressive cast of vaulters will become downright extraordinary when the Coyotes add their latest recruit, Emily Brigham from the Kansas City suburb of Shawnee, Kan. Brigham, a 5-4 ex-gymnast, much like Buell, has already reached 13-7 last July after finishing her junior season at Mill Valley High School. Moreover, the touted recruit is also a dual threat with a P.R. of 20 feet, 4.25 inches in the long jump.

“So, we’ll have five girls next year who potentially all could be 14-footers,’’ beamed Miles. “We’re excited to add her into the mix.’’

Attracting this many nationally ranked vaulters could only be possible with a Pied Piper like Miles, who relates to the athletes and certainly warrants their respect.

“South Dakota definitely was not on my radar, but when (Miles) contacted me and told me what they were all about, I was impressed,’’ said Buell. “I trusted in how they were committed to making pole vaulters the best they can be and it’s definitely paid off.’’

“It’s really fun training with the whole group,’’ said Grove. “We push each other, I think, and (Miles) knows how it all works. We know that he knows what he’s talking about when we change our technique for the better.’’

Miles also has three of the season’s top five men’s pole vaulters in the conference even though his top performer, Kyle Ballew from West Hills, Calif., is redshirting this spring, postponing his final season of college eligibility. Ballew has a personal best of 17 feet, 5.75 inches.

Still, USD’s Kevin Sarehkhani, a senior from Walnut, Calif., leads the conference with a season best of 16-6. Meanwhile, freshmen Peter Chapman from San Diego and Preston Perkins from Marinette, Wis., are fourth and fifth in the Summit League with marks of 16-0 and 15 feet, 5.75 inches, respectively.


Buell Vaulter Magazine
Buell Vaulter Magazine

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