University High School junior Jay Alexander boarded the bus Wednesday, heading off to the state Class 3A track and field meet in Tacoma, feeling the pressure and trying to ignore it.
“I try to not think about it,” he said. “Sometimes that’s hard to do.”
Alexander is one of just two pole vaulters in Class 3A to have cleared 15 feet this season – a height that demands attention in the world of pole vaulting. It’s already earned Alexander a few notes from college track coaches, congratulating him and inviting him to attend summer camp at their school.
At University High School, 15 feet is very good in the pole vault. But the Titan track program knows very good from great.
The No. 2-ranked pole vaulter in the world right now? That would be Brad Walker, who has cleared 19-feet, 9¾ inches and is a former world pole vault champion. He’s a 1999 graduate of University High School, where he cleared 16-0 as a senior.
Good as Walker was, he doesn’t hold the school record.
That mark, 17-1, belongs to Tyson Byers, who won the state Class 4A meet by clearing 17-0, a mark that still stands.
“I think about that,” Alexander said, appreciating the irony. “At just about any other school, I’d have the school record. But here, I’m still two feet behind the school record.”
The pole vault is not an event an athlete can just pick up one day and suddenly be good. It takes hard work, a precise sense of timing and a willingness to do things that do not feel natural.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Alexander said. “I’ve learned to trust my coaches and do what they tell me to do. You have to do it, even if it feels strange.”
It helps that the vault coach at U-Hi is Reg Hulbert, who taught both Walker and Byers to go high.
Alexander was not able to win a third boys state pole vault championship for Hulbert and the Titans. Neither Alexander nor Lev Marcus, who cleared 15-1 in March, were able to capture the state title Thursday at Mount Tahoma High School.
Burlie Walker of Eastmont, who had a personal best height of 13-9 going into the state meet, cleared 14-3 to edge Zane Irvine of West Valley-Yakima, who matched his personal best 14-3, but with more misses than Walker.
That’s the nature of the pole vault: You have to learn to deal with the misses.
When Brad Walker was a U-Hi junior, he struggled and did not improve over his sophomore best height of 14-0. Meanwhile, his teammate, junior Jeff Wineinger, won the state championship by clearing 14-9, and had a season-best height of 15-0.
That was the case for both of the top seeds going into Thursday’s state championship.
Alexander cleared 15-0 in the Titans’ Greater Spokane League meet with Ferris on April 19. He cleared 14-6 to win the Mooberry Relays and qualified for state by clearing 14-1 at last weekend’s regional meet.
He cleared 14-0 Thursday to finish in third place.
Marcus, a junior from Seattle’s Nathan Hale, cleared 15-1 back on March 22. Since reaching that height he cleared 14 feet just once, in the Metro League championships, and qualified for state with a vault of just 13-6.
“Jay has worked hard and he’s gone higher than 15 feet in practice,” University track coach Doug Fry said. “They stretch a bungee cord across the pit and use that instead of a bar and he’s cleared 16 feet. You watch him vault at 13 feet and he clears that height by a wide margin.”
Part of the challenge of going higher in the pole vault is learning to handle newer, longer, stiffer poles. The pole that gets you over 13-0 won’t do when you go for 15-0. And when you have 16-0 in your sights, as Alexander does, you have to carry a bunch of poles.
“Each time you go up a pole, you have to make adjustments,” Alexander said. “You go to a longer pole, you have to adjust. When I’m using the 15-foot pole, for example, I have to shift from a seven-step approach to an eight-step approach.
“You have to adjust your plant and the longer pole is also stiffer, so it feels different as you go up.”
Alexander sits tied for second all-time in the U-Hi junior-year record book, with Wineinger, at 15-0. Byers, a three-time state champion, set a state record for juniors by clearing 16-8¾.
“Jay has done extremely well to this point,” Fry said. “If he keeps working the way he has, who knows how high he can go.”
This summer, Alexander said, he will attend a summer camp at Washington State University and continue to work with Hulbert in the Titan Pole Vaulting Club.
“I’ve competed in the Junior Olympics before, but I’m not going to do that this summer,” Alexander said. “Right now, I’m at the bottom of that age group and I don’t stand much of a chance against guys who are older and stronger. Next summer, I definitely plan to do Junior Olympics.”
The prospect of earning a scholarship to compete in college is more than enough inspiration to keep working hard, he said.
“It inspires my parents, that’s for sure,” he laughed. “The idea of getting a full-ride scholarship makes them very happy!”