Running down a runway that is at least 40 meters long, planting a stick in a box that is 60 centimeters wide in the front before attempting to scale a crossbar that is 4.5 meters wide at an increasingly difficult height is a skill few field athletes might want to try, let alone an ability any might relish.
Yet because of several factors—excellent coaching technique, outstanding athleticism, and mental toughness among others—the Battlefield Bobcats have dominated the pole-vaulting landscape at the Class 6 state meet in both indoor and outdoor meets, winning eight boys and girls titles since 2015.
Battlefield pole vaulting coach Ken Harrison, whose daughter Emily is a former four-time state champion in the event for the Bobcats and is now vaulting at Rice University, said he is grateful to both Battlefield track coach Jarrette Marley for “funneling me great athletes” and his partners at Prince William Pole Vaulting (Osbourn Park pole vaulting coach Jerry McEvoy and Forest Park pole vaulting coach Jim Shotwell) for mentoring him and encouraging him to enhance his coaching skills through certification programs.
“Barley knows [success in] field events win track meets, and my partners at Prince William Pole Vaulting and I really stress fundamentals, so that’s part of the reason for our success. Between each of the programs represented in Prince William Pole Vaulting, a total of 12 state champions have emerged over the last four years,” Harrison said proudly.
The Bobcats’ boys’ team includes the 2018 outdoor 6A State Meet record holder, Jacob Westerfield (15 feet, 7 inches), who sustained a serious injury this summer and has just recently returned to competition. Harrison said since returning from injury, Westerfield has mentored the other three pole vaulters, each of whom has experienced a modicum of success on their own.
Dakota Prue, the 2019 indoor state and regional champion (15-0), has exceeded 15-7 in recent practices and just needs to work on improving his form in order to improve his mark in competition. Matt Collins (14-10), who finished second at the indoor state championships, and Tyler Lynch (14-6), who was the district champion and finished third at the indoor state championships each give the Bobcats a chance to again dominate the state outdoor meet.
Harrison cited the coaching style of the coaches at Prince William Pole Vaulting as a factor in the Bobcats’ recent success, including its indoor prominence. The coaching style, Harrison said, borrows from the Petrov method, a philosophy that paved the way for the dominance of Soviet pole vaulters such as Sergei Bubka during the 1980s.
“We [Prince William Pole Vaulting] moved to an indoor facility this summer and by working together to coach fundamentals, it has really helped,” Harrison said.
Interestingly, technique and actual jumping encompasses only about two days worth of pole vault preparation, while the other days of training are comprised of running and conditioning drills as well as a focus on mechanics and other fundamentals, Harrison said.
Doing the little things has been greatly important, especially in the emergence of Prue, a Virginia Tech commit, who in the space of 23 months has improved from being “essentially a 9-foot jumper” to his current marks. While Prue is very intelligent (a trait all pole vaulters invariably possess) and mentally tough, Harrison said it is Prue’s fundamentals that have paid the biggest dividends.
“When I asked him how he was able to jump [so much higher so fast], Dakota basically told me it was all the little things we taught him. He also said, ‘It was just something I knew I had to do.’” Harrison said.
Harrison said Battlefield’s girls’ team is currently in a rebuilding phase because he has not had a lot of girls willing to embrace the challenge of pole vault the last few years. The Bobcats do have one vaulter, Hana Bussell, who intends to continue to vault at the University of Mary Washington next year.
“Some of the parents are a little apprehensive, but I tell them a girl has a better chance of suffering a head injury in soccer than in pole vaulting if the fundamentals are done correctly. We do have a group of freshmen who are trying it and look promising,” Harrison said.
Another key to success is making the event fun, something that is easy for Harrison, because he enjoys coaching so much.
“Seeing a freshman go from someone who is gangly and awkward and watching them develop physically as well as in their self esteem, to grow as people and athletes, is really fun, so I don’t see myself stopping coaching anytime soon,” Harrison said.
The depth Battlefield has in pole vault has been heightened by the success they have experienced as well as the difficulty of the event.
“There’s a mystique about doing it, but I also think there’s a closeness that emerges [with other pole vaulters]. I think the other kids have struggled through the same struggles,” Harrison said. “In pole vault, you are going to have failure before you have success, so you need to learn to deal with that. But I think there’s reward in continuing to do the little things. Also, I’ve never seen a kid who knows how to fly [successfully pole vault] who wants to quit.”