NEW PORT RICHEY —Tucked behind Mitchell’s football stadium, isolated from the rest of their track teammates, a handful of athletes practice their craft.
They stand on a narrow strip of pavement. On their hip, they balance a pole over twice their height and sprint down the pavement as fast as their body allows. At a precise mark, they jam a fiberglass pole into a metal pit and slingshot 13 feet into the air, hoping that when they come back to earth, they’ll land on a thickly-padded mat rather than the unforgiving track asphalt.
As a freshman at River Ridge, A.J. Bales, now a senior at Mitchell, was drawn to the uniqueness of the pole vault, arguably the most obscure of the 17 high school track and field events. His father, Andrew, was a vaulter in high school and college, and A.J. thought maybe some of his father’s talent was buried inside, waiting to emerge.
The sport was more challenging than expected.
“I wasn’t good at all my freshman year because I didn’t have any coaching,” he said.
Ryan Jerothe also has a father who pole vaulted in high school. Russell Jerothe coached at the AAU level with 727 Track Club four years ago and later formed his own pole vault club, High Standards, which he currently directs.
Now he volunteers at Mitchell, serving as the track team’s de facto pole vaulting coach.
“I didn’t even know my dad vaulted until I told him I was going to go out for it,” said Ryan, also a senior vaulter for the Mustangs. “And then the next day at practice, I show up and he’s the coach.”
Together, A.J. and Ryan have given Mitchell two state contenders in an event where many schools struggle to find someone to compete. And their fathers offer guidance in a sport with very few teachers — Andrew Bales volunteers at River Ridge, which also counts his son, Evan, and Ryan’s brother, Devon, among its vaulters.
“Most kids start out as 8, 9 feet jumpers,” Russell Jerothe said. “They plateau without coaching about 9-6. Once they have the coaching, it progresses because they learn the physics of it and how to energize the pole.”
Under their fathers’ tutelage, A.J. and Ryan have been reaching new heights.
Last year, the pair jumped 12 feet for the Mustangs at regionals, falling just out of the points.
This season, they’ve already cleared the former Mitchell school record of 13 feet, 6 inches set by Taylor Britton in 2009. A.J. grabbed the school mark by jumping 14 feet, 2 inches at the Mitchell Invitational on Feb. 26.
Wiregrass Ranch senior Alex Kazanski maxed out at 14 feet, 6 inches on his way to district, region and state titles last season as a junior. The Mitchell vaulters are right on Kazanski’s heels and aiming for 15 feet by the end of the season.
“I’m right there,” A.J. said. “It’s a pole situation. As soon as I get on a bigger pole, the sky’s the limit."
To reach 15 feet and challenge for a state title, A.J. and Ryan practice their technique repeatedly under the watchful eye of their fathers standing on the side, correcting any flaws and offering encouragement when the sport tests the vaulters’ nerve.
“The hardest thing about pole vaulting is just getting over the fear,” Ryan said. “Because you’re basically running full speed into a brick wall. You’ve got to be a little crazy to vault.”