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Pole vault problems: Small schools battle costs in track and field’s daredevil event

Menno's Allison Lehr competes in the pole vault at the Cornbelt Conference meet on Monday in Menno. (Nick Sabato / Republic)

It takes speed, body control and a bit of fearlessness to be a good pole vaulter.

It also takes the proper technique, equipment and facilities to be a good pole vaulter, which limits high schools around the state from competing in the event or doing so to the maximum potential.

Many schools, particularly smaller schools, lack pole vault facilities due to cost. That not only limits them from competing, but also has ramifications on small schools that do have pole vaulters.

"A lot of it is the cost, and with us having an older track, we don't have the room and facility space to put pole vault in there," Hanson head coach Tyler Payer said. "We would have interest—I would guess—if we had the facilities, but right now we just don't have the facilities being a small Class B school."

Pole vault landing systems—mats and crossbars—are priced at more than $15,000 and pole range from $275 up to $1,000 apiece. Like a hockey stick or a baseball bat, one size does not fit every athlete.

A proper pole must be fitted to the height and weight of the vaulter, while also having the right length as the bar ascends during competition. Per South Dakota rules, vaulters must list their weight prior to each meet, while there are also a variety of rules for poles.

Cost has led to the pole vaulters and coaches developing a tight-knit community, so they have trade or borrow poles when needed.

Still, Wagner pole vault coach Chad Peters—who has sent multiple vaulters to the state meet during the last two decades—estimates that nearly half of the pole vaulters in the state use a legal pole, but not one suited to them.

"(South Dakota) has a rule that you have to vault on a pole that is of equal weight or heavier than what the vaulter weighs," Peters said. "That limits a lot of schools, because you're not going to have success bending the pole and penetrating into the mats if you don't have the proper pole for that particular athlete."

Due to the complexity and daredevil nature of the event, those who choose to participate more frequently volunteer rather than through coach placement.

Like Wagner, Menno has developed a strong pole vault culture over the years. At Monday's Cornbelt Conference meet, only Menno, Freeman and Irene-Wakonda entered into the pole vault. Of the 20 vaulters competing in varsity and junior high competitions, 11 were from Menno.

Much of that is due to indoor pole vault equipment that allows Menno vaulters to practice all season and for boys coach Ken Bruckner to use the equipment in his physical education classes.

"Over the years, we just get kids that are interested," Bruckner said. "When we built our new school, we put in an indoor pit. I think every kid that has graduated from Menno High School since 2000 has pole vaulted at least once in their life."

The lack of pole vaulters in Class A and Class B can also dictate the meets those schools attend. Schools such as Menno and Wagner attend as many local meets as possible, but they also seek those that offer the pole vault.

"We like to have vaulting there, but it's not a prerequisite," Wagner head coach Joe Kafka said. "We go to Avon and Lake Andes and we know going in that they don't have vaulting. ... We went to the Dakota Valley meet and that was one where we wanted to look for one that had vaulting."

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