It’s rare that a school has one state-caliber pole vaulter.
It’s even rarer to have two. Imagine four.
That’s what Mike Fleming is privileged to have as vault coach at Mead. Seniors Braden Barranco, Korey Jacque and Colton McLendon and junior Aleks Vasilyev rank among the best vaulters in the state.
Barranco, a transfer from Newport, has clearly risen above the pack. He started to establish his pedigree as a sophomore at Newport when he captured a State 1A championship. He slipped back to fifth last year.
He has the second-best jump among 4A vaulters at 15 feet, an inch off the leader. He took first Saturday at the Pasco Invite with a leap of 14-6.
Jacque jumped a personal-best 14-0 at Pasco. Vasilyev has gone 14-0 and McLendon’s top jump is 13-6.
All are capable of qualifying for state, but there’s a rub. Just the top two out of regionals earn automatic berths to Tacoma, and Larry Still of Richland, the state leader, certainly will be in the hunt.
So if more than two hope to go to state, they have to meet the minimum qualifying standard of 14-5.
Fleming, in his 39th season at Mead, has altered his usual practice routine this spring in the hope that all of his vaulters will qualify for state. He declined to be specific, but acknowledged that clearing 14-5 is a detail his pride of Panthers works on each day.
Barranco had high hopes coming into his final season. The four jumpers who placed ahead of him last year at the State 1A meet graduated, so he appeared to be all but a lock to capture a second state title at Newport. But he transferred to Mead because he wanted to challenge himself at the highest level.
“I didn’t have my best year last spring,” Barranco said. “I was coming off two surgeries from football. I tore my labrum in the second-to-last game of the season. Halfway through the season I tore a ligament in my thumb. I wasn’t exactly sure I’d be able to vault going into the season.”
Then in his first practice this spring, he fell awkwardly out of the pit and suffered a concussion.
State title aside, Barranco has his sights set on breaking Mead’s all-time record (15-8).
“I think it’s in me,” he said. “The main thing is I have to stay healthy.”
In Mead’s first Greater Spokane League dual before spring break, Barranco soared 15-0. He wanted to try to go higher but didn’t bring the appropriate poll.
“I was on the end of my 14-foot poll and crushing it,” he said. “It wasn’t lifting me any higher.”
Barranco hasn’t given an oral commitment, but he said he’s likely to jump at Eastern Washington University.
“I hope I can go a little higher, because the higher I go the more they’ll have to pay me (scholarship assistance),” Barranco said.
Not just anybody can be a vaulter, Barranco said.
“There’s fear, for sure,” he said. “You’ve got to be a little bit crazy to try it. If you jump and get rejected and thrown back, it makes you realize how dangerous it can be.”
“He’s very talented,” Fleming said. “He’s so strong and fast.”
Vasilyev cleared 14-0 at regionals last year.
He knows with another year remaining in high school that the sky is the limit for him. He set the sophomore record last year. He wants the junior class record (15-3) this season.
Vasilyev has yet to hit 14-6 in a meet.
“It’s just a matter of time,” he said.
Vasilyev benefits from having a background in gymnastics. He admits that the event isn’t for the faint of heart.
“I’ve done a lot of crazy stuff in my life and this is just another crazy thing that I do,” he said. “I’ve also done cliff diving.”
Fleming said he’s happy about the prospect of coaching Vasilyev for another year.
Jacque has the purest form of the vaulters, Fleming said. Jacque has improved his personal best by a foot this spring.
He moved to a 15-foot pole this week.
“I think I’ll see immediate results,” he said.
Jacque likens learning to vault to learning to drive for the first time.
“When you first start driving a car, you’re scared of everything,” he said. “I’m not as scared of jumping as I was when I first started, but it’s still a little scary. It’s good to have a respect for how dangerous it can be.”
“Technically, he’s one of the best vaulters I’ve ever had without a doubt,” Fleming said. “He can feel and turn and come off the pole vertically very well.”
McLendon was a state alternate last year. He’s 6 inches behind his personal best from a year ago.
“The hardest part will be just getting to state,” he said.
The technique comes more difficult to McLendon.
“I have to work at arm strength and plant,” he said. “I can’t get upside down. That’s the hardest part for me. The biggest thing for me is fear. If I get upside down, for some reason I don’t think I’m going to land in the pit.”
“He still has a couple of technical issues, but his brain is a little more sane,” Fleming said. “He’s just as good as the rest of them. Everyone in sports has little demons they battle.”