While athletes in other sports have been held hostage by this spring’s frenetic weather, pole vaulters at Yankton High School and surrounding teams have found a way to keep at their craft.
First came bouts with snow and cold temperatures. Then came a brief reprieve, in which Yankton hosted the First Dakota Relays last Thursday and a home dual with Sioux Falls O’Gorman on Tuesday.
Then came Wednesday’s return to wet and chilly weather.
Through it all, the Bucks and Gazelles vaulters — highlighted by two of Class AA’s best, in juniors Casey Skillingstad and James Hofer — have remained dedicated to their technique and made life for their vaults coach Deb Lillie rather entertaining.
“They do absolutely anything and everything that they need to do to get better,” said Lillie, who as one of the few female vaults coaches in the state is in her 12th year. “They have interesting personalities, too. It makes practice interesting.”
Despite the up and down nature to the season because of weather, consistency hasn’t exactly been an issue for the Bucks duo, though.
Each has continued to improve their marks. Skillingstad vaulted 13-feet-3 and Hofer went 12-feet-9 in Tuesday’s dual with Sioux Falls O’Gorman.
“This is a technical sport; it’s all about working on your technique,” Hofer said last week. “Runners can run pretty much wherever, but jumpers and vaulters can’t really do that.”
Though Yankton has had to do some shuffling with its schedule, its pole vaulters have been able to practice inside the Summit Activities Center.
The facility has an indoor pit in the gym, so vaulters can still work on their routines. When there is a conflict with the gym, like during the Roger Haas Basketball Tournaments, the pit is put away.
“When it’s cold, windy and wet, it’s hard to vault,” Skillingstad said. “It’s nice to have an indoor pit where we can practice.”
Of course, even practices mean extra work for everyone — including vaulters from nearby schools like Irene-Wakonda and Gayville-Volin — involved, Lillie said.
“It’s a lot of work to be a pole vaulter,” she said. “Setting up and tearing down the outdoor pit takes quite a bit of work. That’s why you really have to want to vault.”
That’s where the vaulting community is a rather tight-knit group. During last Thursday’s First Dakota Relays, Skillingstad and Hofer did not immediately leave Williams Field after their event. They stayed and chatted with other vaulters — including champion Reagan Francom from Huron.
Deb’s daughter, Jordan Lillie who vaults at Bethany College (Kan.), experienced the opposite scene during a meet.
“She said she couldn’t believe how the coaches down there didn’t get along,” Deb said. “They were doing things you just don’t see up here. People get excited about everyone else’s success in South Dakota.”
Hofer agreed, saying all the Yankton vaulters motivate each other. Also vaulting for Yankton are Joseph Kelly (Fr.), as well as Lindsay Larson (So.), Elsie Kotalik (Jr.) and Meggie Steiner (So.) for the Gazelles.
“It’s a team effort, you need people to push you,” Hofer said. “We’re all encouraging each other, and coach Lillie is great with pushing us.”
Skillingstad and Hofer, both of whom will look for top finishes this weekend at the Howard Wood Dakota Relays in Sioux Falls and are already qualified for the S.D. State Meet, have also found ways to push each other, Skillingstad said.
“When James vaults and makes a height, he rags on me that I won’t be able to do it too,” he said. “It’s nice to have him there, though, to push me.”
As Lillie pointed out, that trend started a long time ago. Pole vault is proving to be a family tradition, she said.
“It’s an extended family. The coaches and athletes, we all want everyone to be successful,” Lillie said. “My first group is now getting married and inviting me to their weddings.”
Even among the Yankton vaulting group there are family connections. Larson’s brother A.J. is a former Buck vaulter, as is Skillingstad’s brother Brady. Former YHS vaulter Mark Vetter has two siblings currently competing, Noah and Hannah.
Then, of course, there were the Lillies.
Justin was a Class AA state champion for the Bucks last year in the 110-meter hurdles, and Jordan is a senior in college. Kendall Lillie (So.) is pursuing hurdles too, and her mother joked that she is 1-for-3 getting her kids to vault.
The guys currently vaulting, though, have their eyes on the next big mark.
“Thirteen feet was my goal for this year, so now that I got that, it’s on to the next one,” Skillingstad, whose next goal is 14-feet, said last week.
If he does that, it would likely come outside — barring, of course, any further weather delays.
“It’s been a rough year with everything that’s gone on,” Hofer said. “We’ve missed a lot of meets, but it felt nice to finally get outside.”