Stars and Stripes Big Red Barn Meet Preview

(Leah Pasqualetti, Orchard Park, NY - photo by Tony Morales)

MENIFEE, Ca.-- Any time you have America's No. 1 vs. No. 2, it's a national championship.  

That's especially true this year as the Coronavirus has virtually wiped out the entire track and field season at every level, including the Tokyo Olympic Games. The exception, then, will unfold Friday when the nation's No. 1 outdoor girls high school pole vaulter, Paige Sommers of Westlake High, who cleared 14-6 the first week of the season, faces indoor leader Leah Pasqualetti of Orchard Park, N.Y., who soared over 14-feet under the roof, in the Big Red Barn meet.

The East vs. West showdown will highlight a three-day competition being held in the unlikely location of a construction yard, but one that features first-class facilities as well as blue chip competition for boys and girls at every conceivable level. Elite competitors, from high school to Olympic hopefuls, open the competition on Friday with the men starting at 4 p.m. and the women at 6. Both fields are 15-individuals deep.

Sommers cleared 14-feet at this pole vault-only facility in early June before missing three times at the national high school record of 14-8 ¼. With that in mind, event director Doug Bouma reportedly plans to raise the bar in six-inch increments of three and nine inches. "That's perfect for us, too," said Michael Abule, Pasqualetti's coach, "because the (New York) state outdoor record is 14-feet. She never had a chance to compete outdoors. Leah has until Aug. 19 to set the record. When you have the No. 1 vaulter in the nation in Paige Sommers and a quality facility like this, you've got to go for it."

Abule said his and Pasqualetti's families quarantened together so she could use the pole vault facility he has at his home. "The only thing she's missed is the competition and we know she'll get it here," said Abule of Pasqualetti, who will attend Kent State this fall. "It's nice to be the underdog and we like the East vs. West concept."

Not that Sommers isn't ready. Her fairly close misses at 14-8 ¼ early in the month at the same facility bodes well even though the senior-to-be's father, John, says she's not where she probably would have been with a real outdoor season of competition. "When we thought the season was derailed we went back to fall training," said Sommers' dad. "But going 14 at the first Big Red Barn meet and then 13-7 in Arizona shows she's jumping well."

Bouma pointed out that there should be plenty of competition for the two 14-footers with Illinois' Windsor Roberts (13-5 ½) and Kansas City freshman Rachel Homoly (13-0) also in the field.

The men's field includes national-level vaulters likes Illinois' Nathan Richartz (18-7), Georgia's Tray Oats (18-4 ½) and a little international splash with Italy's Luigi Colella (18-2).

Bouma said 82 vaulters will compete on the same 4 p.m.-6 p.m. schedule featuring intermediate competitors on Saturday with beginners and masters going on Sunday. This is the first time he has spread the Big Red Barn meet across three days as the earlier one was a one-day affair. "We just decided to jump in and do it because with the pole vault, if you don't have competition, the whole sport will go downhill," he said. "If you don't continue to set the standard, it'll die."

He called his brand-new runway "10 times better than Arcadia," which is where the girls' national record fell a year ago. The pits are also state-of-the art and athletes who competed earlier in the month left raving about the facility.

Bouma, the head coach at Murrieta Valley High who is working with his son Derek, the head coach at Vista Murrieta, has taken the Coronavirus into consideration. "We'll have 82 athletes and about 100 fans," he said, "spaced across three days. We ask the competitors to be aware of social distancing and in the event itself, they're all alone on the runway. The site is four to five acres in size with a couple of small companies and the Big Red Barn, a private residence, on the grounds. We just want to give the kids a chance to compete."

And if not set a national or state record, maybe some bragging rights and lots of smiles.