With an eye on pole vault national record, Sumner’s Devin King goes for the crown at New Balance National Championship

There are seemingly many standard rites of passage when turning 18. But Devin King is writing his own coming-of-age story. The Jewel Sumner senior celebrated his milestone birthday on Thursday and at Saturday’s New Balance National Indoor Championship, looks to become the first high school boy to ever clear 18 feet in the indoor pole vault.

King enters the event 5-1/2 inches ahead of the next competitor with his 17-foot, 8-inch jump that smashed LSU’s Carl Maddox Field House facility record Feb. 15. But pole vault can be finicky. Just ask him about last year. Expecting to place in the top two, the Southeastern Louisiana signee finished a disappointing fifth with a 15 foot, 9-1/4 inch jump.

The senior says the size of Upper Manhattan’s historic Armory Track as well as the hustle-bustle pace of New York City overwhelmed him.

“Last year, I was pretty nervous. New York’s a big city and I’m from the country,” King says. “It doesn’t correlate.”

Perhaps not for a first-time competitor. But the slow rhythm of life in southeast Louisiana may be just what the American pole vault scene needs.

Tangipahoa Parish, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, is about as far from the Big Apple as it gets. Take Exit 36 heading northbound on I-55 to stop in Tickfaw, where there’s land, cows, a two-lane highway and a gas station in both directions. Squint and you’ll miss the turn onto Antioch Road’s Bartolina Athletics, where King and other high school disciples flock to learn the tricks of track and field’s most elegant event.

The facility, owned and operated by 2008 Olympian Erica Bartolina, features a wind tunnel, runway, vault mat, bars and walls lined with enough poles to suit every slight variance in athletes’ daily physicality.

Bartolina moved to Louisiana in 2005, right before Hurricane Katrina. Her ex-husband, Mike, was her coach and he had accepted a coaching position with Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond. He still is the SLU coach and will take the reigns over King’s career when he graduates.

King is just the latest prodigy in what has lately been a hotbed of national pole vault talent to emerge from southern Louisiana. Fellow LHSAA alumni Morgann Leleux (New Iberia) and Merritt van Meter (Country Day) will represent Georgia and Tulane at this weekend’s NCAA DI Indoor Championship.

“I think the mentality of the culture here [in southern Louisiana] really suits pole vaulting,” Bartolina says. “No one’s ever in too much of a hurry here. Pole vault is something that takes a lot of time and patience – you have to work at it and work at it. You can’t demand results right away.”

King has spent three afternoons per week at the facility since his freshman year of high school. Before that, the seventh-grader saw the sport as a chance to goof off with his friends and do backflips. Once enrolled at Sumner, King joined his teammates at Bartolina’s clinic and saw immediate improvement, progressing from 10 feet as an eighth-grader to 13 feet, 10 inches by the end of his freshman year for runner-up honors at the LHSAA 4A State Outdoor Championship.

“Devin has a real natural knack for the technique,” Bartolina says. “When you start working with an athlete that has obvious talent, it’s unclear if all the pieces will come together – family support, injuries, attitude. So you can be hopeful of thinking, ‘this can be a great one,’ but you don’t know.”

Even King didn’t know. Not after another runner-up finish at the 2011 indoor state meet, nor after his first state outdoor title as a sophomore.

“[Coming into high school], I thought I was going to be a 12-foot vaulter throughout my high school career,” King said. “My turning point was sophomore year, when I jumped 15-6 in the summer. Everybody that year was jumping 15-6, 16 feet, so I was like, ‘I’m pretty good now, I can jump with them. I’m with the big dogs now.’”

From there, King stayed on a steady linear progression, jumping his age in feet every year and capturing three more 3A state titles along the way.

“Whenever male vaulters are developing, it’s a big deal to jump their age,” Bartolina says. “He jumped 17 feet last year when he was still 16, so he was a foot ahead.”

Eighteen is the magic number — a number that King only joked about, even a year ago. The current high school indoor record is 17 feet, 9-1/4 inches, set by reigning NCAA champion Andrew Irwin in 2011. Outdoors, the national mark is 18 feet, 3-1/2 inches, held by Shawn Barber since 2012.

“I’ve jumped 17-plus enough times to come in there [to New York] and be confident in how well I’ll jump,” King says. “I’ve had high heights over 17-10 and higher than 17-5, especially here at practice, so I feel pretty good going in [to the national meet] to jump high.”

To jump 18 feet in the outdoor season would put King in elite company – only six other schoolboys have ever accomplished the feat. But to do so indoors would make history.

“When you can say that you’re better than anybody else has ever been, it’s truly significant,” Bartolina says.

King, the deer hunting country boy, may be the new face of American pole vaulting.

The Seeded Division of the Boys’ Pole Vault at the New Balance National Indoor Championship begins at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 15.




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