Girls Pole Vault Depth Benefitted From COVID Opportunities


Two of the state's elite senior pole vaulters are friendly rivals in San Diego: Lexi Evans (left) of Scripps Ranch, and Allison Leigh of Del Norte. (Jeffrey Parenti photo)

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SAN DIEGO -- Lexi Evans pondered the question: How did being able to pole vault during the COVID 19 pandemic in 2020 affect you?

"To a degree, I think it saved my sanity," said the Scripps Ranch senior. "It was a rough time doing nothing. Being with others with the same interests and likes got me out of those tough times. I might have found something else or maybe not.

"The competitions in Menifee allowed me to meet new people and to have some fun when it really wasn't much fun. I went to a couple of competitions when Paige (Sommers of Westlake) was there and I got to see her clear 14-8.50 (a state record at the time). I learned a lot but mostly I was able to be around people again."

For an active and successful high school athlete, first losing the entire track season and then being locked out of school was like midnight with a new moon --completely dark.

But for Evans and a lot of other San Diego-area athletes (plus others from Los Angeles and Riverside County), there was a ray of light. Although everything around them shut down, the North County Vault Club, led by Mike Wagenveld, persisted, although not at the same level as before.

And although there were no official track meets anywhere in the state, Doug Bouma and his son Derek, were able to use some private property in Menifee in Southwest Riverside County to host pole vaulters in mini-competitions. He spent more than $100,000 of his own money in procuring state-of-the-art equipment, hiring surveyors to make sure the runway and pit were level, and made certain one of the top officials in the state was at every event.

The pole vault series was called the Big Red Barn since there was, indeed, a famous big red barn on the site, and hundreds of vaulters from across the country as far away as New York, found a way to get there.

It was all free of charge.

Wagenveld (pictured at right with Poway's Evangeline Thompson) made sure as many of his club members who wanted to go could get transportation and poles. They were one of just a handful of clubs utilizing whatever facilities they could -- in his case the driveway of his house -- to give vaulters an opportunity.

They complimented each other well -- practice with the North County Vault Club and compete at the Big Red Barn, which was sponsored by Vaulter Magazine.

"One week became two weeks and then three, four, and pretty soon vaulters of all ages from all around the country were coming," said Bouma, who coaches at Murrieta Valley HS. "We'd start at 8:30 a.m. and go until 11:30 at night. It wasn't really a meet, it was team building and that was approved."

Still, Bouma took a lot of flack for what he did.

"I told my son to be ready to carry on if they tried to shut us down," said Bouma (pictured below with Vista Murrieta's Aspen Fears). "We took every precaution -- we had hand-washing stations, we socially distanced, wearing masks was optional, we had one road in and one out, we didn't have stands but parents and grandparents came and they made it work.

"I have no regrets. In my opinion, looking at the increase in suicides, especially among teenage girls, we saved lives. I didn't want kids giving up on life. I was in Iraq twice and I can do whatever it takes to save kids and the sport."

The result may very well be in these numbers: Of the 24 girls pole vaulters who had cleared 12 feet or better heading into last week's section meets, 11 -- almost half -- were from San Diego. And of those 11, 10 had at some point touched base with the North County Vault Club.

Adding to the depth of high-level girls pole vaulters are Big Red Barn regulars Aspen Fears, a sophomore at Vista Murrieta who just won the CIF-SS Division 1 title, and Madisyn Negro, a junior at Murrieta Valley, who placed second in the CIF-SS D-2 competition last Saturday. Both have cleared 13-2, among 10 girls in the state at 13 feet or higher entering CIF Championship Week. 

"Even we shut down, briefly, as we transferred to private property," said Wagenveld. "We would have small groups of kids, two and three, come and after they were done, we'd spray everything down with bleach and do it again. We social-distanced.

"We took on kids during the lockdown to help them get through. Kids were desperate to jump, so Doug suggested I start a club and we did it. (COVID) really took a toll on the kids and it was a huge disservice to them. I have to thank Doug for being brave enough to do what he did."

A key statistic for the training and the 24 Big Red Barn series: Not one person --athlete, parent or coach -- came down with COVID 19, according to Wagenveld and Bouma.

"We were very careful and we followed all the guidelines," said Wagenveld. "If someone wanted to wear a mask, we encouraged them. Area vault coaches like Tom Martin (Rancho Bernardo) and Peter Brooks (Poway) supported us. For the vaulters, though, it was both a physical outlet and a psychological boost."

Evans is a good example.

"For me, vaulting was an outlet for my frustration," said Evans, who didn't take up the sport until her sophomore year. "I had just started pole vaulting when COVID came but it was all I hoped it would be and I didn't want to stop.

"Mike operated a team of vaulters and we were all there to have fun, to work together, and we even got some outside competition. There was so much camaraderie. I also have to thank my parents for driving me to all the practices and meets -- they were very supportive."

Evans, who will compete collegiately at Cal Poly SLO, cleared 7-6 her first year and by last spring she was over 13-feet. She took the state lead at the San Diego Section Western League championships.

Wagenveld admits he's partial, but he believes the San Diego Section could go 1-2-3 at the State Meet.

The numbers support him.

Evans (pictured above) is No. 1 in the state at 13-10. Del Norte's Allison Leigh has vaulted 13-7 this year but went 14 feet a year ago. Poway's Evangeline Thomson has cleared 13-3 and Fallbrook's Rose Wagner is a 13-footer. Seven of the top 15 performances of 12-8 or better come from San Diego.

It won't be easy. San Diego and SoCal does not have exclusivity on top-level girls pole vaulters. Also in the 13-foot club: Oak Ridge (SJ) senior Alison Sahaida has gone 13-9, Dublin (NC) sophomore Jathiyah Muhammad has gone 13-8, Maria Carrillo (NC) junior Lily Mulligan has cleared 13-2.50, and Buchanan (CS) junior Jordan Leveque has cleared 13-0. 

It's just that nowhere in the vast Golden State is the depth of elite girls pole vault as strong as it is in its southern-most section.

"Making the victory stand at the State Meet is very special," said Wagenveld. "But this is a very special group."

Steve Brand is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to MileSplit

Photos by Karen Ocskasy, James Huenink, and Jeffrey Parenti