In their first year as members of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, USF has established itself as the dominant program in the league when it comes to the pole vault.
That much was made obvious Friday during the first day of the NSIC outdoor track championships at Howard Wood Field, where the Cougars swept both the men’s and women’s pole vault titles and accounted for nine of the 16 place-finishers.
But if USF’s success in that event comes as a surprise to the Cougars’ new conference foes, it shouldn’t. This is a team within a team that has been at the forefront of USF’s seamless track transition from NAIA to the NCAA Division II level, all the while maintaining a faith-based atmosphere on and off the track.
On Friday, Kayla Coffee won the women’s conference title with a leap of 13 feet, 2.25 inches, with teammates Kristin Majerus and Brigitte Gross finishing directly behind her and Samantha Koch and Sophie Harano taking fifth and sixth. Coffee, Majerus and Gross have all qualified for nationals already.
For the men, freshman Scott Greenman won the pole vault title with a leap of 16-8.75, with teammates Jagger Gran, another freshman, in third at 16-4.75 and sophomore Brandon Rogers in fifth at 15-5.75.
Friday’s performance at the NSIC meet, which wraps up today, was more than a hardware haul for the Cougar vaulters. It was a statement.
“I definitely think this will open some people’s eyes,” said Gross, a junior from Alexandria and a two-time NAIA national champ. “People in the conference will see what we’re capable of, and when the coaches are recruiting other athletes, they’ll see that we’re competing well at a high level. It’s definitely a point of pride for us.”
The pole vaulting success can be attributed largely to former coach Gene Brooks. Hired by Willie Sanchez to coincide with the Cougars opening the Lillibridge Track Complex adjacent to Bob Young Field in 2006, Brooks took over a program that lacked an identity but quickly changed that.
Brooks had been an All-American vaulter himself and coached countless All-Americans and national champs at Concordia (Neb.), his alma mater. While Brooks says he fought a perception early that he was narrowly focused on vaulters at the expense of other events, he says he was merely building a foundation with what he knew.
“I felt pressure to have a well-rounded program, but I was still going to work on my bread and butter – and that’s pole vault,” said Brooks, who is now USF’s vice president of student development and a part-time assistant for his protege, head track coach Reid Ehrisman.
“If you have a good understanding of the techniques and a passion for pole vaulting, you can be successful at it. A lot of teams don’t have that, and we’re capitalizing on it. If you can have that kind of success, it can be the flagship of the program and get the other events to aspire to the same thing.”
Ehrisman, who vaulted under Brooks at high school camps and at Concordia, became a full-time assistant whose only on-field responsibilities were pole vault. While Brooks focused on improving other areas – adding standout distance runners Colin Koth and Bobby and Billy Brockmueller, among others – Ehrisman began guiding Coffee, Majerus and Gross on the way to improvement.
All were state champions in high school, and the Cougar women breezed through the GPAC, at times placing seven of the top eight finishers in conference meets. While it might have seemed unusual to see the Cougars competing against themselves in Friday’s finals, they’re used to it.
“Pretty much every meet we go to my top competition is my teammates,” said Majerus, a senior from Holdrege, Neb. “But that’s a blessing to me. We’re always pushing each other and encouraging each other at the same time. It’s a great situation to be in.”
Finding another level
That partly explains why the Cougars are having success now. Much like their football team, they were pursuing Division II and Division I talent even while they were NAIA. At the time they were recruited, USF’s upperclassmen didn’t even know the school planned to move up to Division II.
“We definitely recruited a lot of talent,” says Ehrisman. “But the other thing is, they’ve developed. They’ve put in the work. For us to have the same kind of success in Division II that we had in the GPAC speaks volumes about our kids.” When Brooks moved into administration last year, Ehrisman was ready to take over, but he and Brooks agreed that it would be impossible for Ehrisman to give the vaulters the attention they required as head coach, so they added Chad Aurich to serve as vaulting coach.
As the women stayed strong through the maturation of their three stars, the men looked to catch up. That’s finally happening, and the women’s success had a lot to do with it.
“I wanted to go Division I, but I felt like USF had as good a program as a lot of those schools,” said Greenman, who came to Sioux Falls from California after answering a flyer in the mail. “You could see that they had great coaches, and you could really tell that it’s a big pole vaulting family here between the men’s and women’s teams. I came here to become a better pole vaulter, but I feel like I’ve also become a better person and a better Christian.”
Leap of faith
It can be a little jarring to hear one Cougar vaulter after another cite the role of their faith in their careers, but clearly USF’s athletes are serious about it. Ehrisman and Aurich sell USF’s Christian mission aggressively in recruiting, and it’s attracted – and kept – good athletes.
“I was looking for a track program that focused on Christian values,” says Coffee, who is married to Caleb Coffee, a former Cougar vaulter who graduated last year. “The coaches really emphasize those values and that way of living. When I came here, there were only a couple of girls vaulting, so I kind of wondered what God had in store for me. But he’s made it an amazing ride.”
That faith also helped bring the team together earlier this year when a freak injury situation threatened to derail the season. In December, Brian Schenavar tore his ACL after an awkward landing, ending what was supposed to be a memorable senior season for the former GPAC champion.
Two months later, his wife, Chelsey Schenavar, a vaulter for the women, tore the ACLs in both knees in a failed jump, a devastating injury that also ended her season. On Friday, teammates were dedicating their championships to the Schenavars.
“They’ve been a huge inspiration to us,” said Greenman. “It’s been an honor for us to go out there and compete for them.”
Looking ahead, Gross admits that she’ll miss having Majerus and Coffee to push her next season, but there are others waiting in the wings to push her. Gross says her long-term goal is to add a Division II national championship to her NAIA crowns, and she’s approaching that tall task with confidence.
Coffee and Majerus both say they’ll be shooting for All-American status at nationals, with their sights set on leaps into the mid-to-upper reaches of the 13-foot range.
Meanwhile, Ehrisman hopes the success of the vaulters will continue to help the program add athletes like freshman Jazzelena Black, who captured the long jump title Friday to go with the two indoor titles she won in the winter.
“Someone said to me earlier, ‘What time is the pole vault – that’s the one you guys are good at, right?” Ehrisman said. “I’m proud that people know that about our pole vaulters, but I don’t want people to overlook the Jazzelena Blacks and the Colin Koths and the Brockmuellers and so many other kids we have that are really doing some things.
“The pole vaulters broke down the barriers,” Ehrisman adds. “They won an NSIC championship and they’re going to nationals. So now we can look at the other events and say, ‘The vaulters are going to nationals, so why can’t you?’