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DUNEDIN SOPHOMORE A NATURAL IN THE POLE VAULT

Dunedin's Olivia Welsh sprinted down the pole vault runway, coordinated perfectly and lofted herself over the bar at 9 feet, a height that usually would not raise any eyebrows.

But the sophomore cleared the mark in her first high school meet, three weeks after picking up a pole for the first time.

"To go from never trying the sport, to going that high right from the start is pretty remarkable," said Dave Mason, who coaches Welsh in the vault. "I knew right then I had a pretty good pole vaulter."

Welsh began her athletic career as a tennis and soccer player. But after her developmental club soccer team disbanded, she thought about trying another sport in hopes of eventually landing a college scholarship.

It was only natural that she would gravitate toward track. After all, her parents, Jason and Ann Welsh, both ran hurdles at Florida State. Ann, who is from Scotland, also competed in the Commonwealth Games in 1982 (the youngest competitor at the time) and 1986.

Olivia's older sister, Hannah, a former standout at Dunedin, is currently a high jumper and heptathlete with the Seminoles.

"Olivia has always been a little sports nut," Ann said. "She even tried to play tackle football when she was young. So we weren't terribly surprised that she would give track a go. The hurdles were obvious because we've done that. But the pole vault was a surprise. She's still trying to explain all the details with it. But she loves it."

The stellar times in the 100 hurdles came quickly. At the Ed Wells/Kiwanis Invitational last month, Welsh set the meet record, winning in 14.91 seconds. She has continued to drop time in the event with her personal record now at 14.7 seconds.

No one, however, could anticipate the heights she has soared to in the pole vault, an event that combines sprint, speed, upper-body strength and gymnastic body control.

The first thing Welsh had to get over was the jitters of hanging upside down from a wildly bending pole and letting it fling her a few feet in the air. After all, poles sometimes shatter, vaulters sometimes miss the pit.

"When I first started, I was really nervous," Welsh said. "The pole vault was completely new to me. But I've had some really great coaching, and it's becoming comfortable to me."

Two weeks after her first meet, Welsh continued her remarkable ascent, clearing 10-7 at East Lake's Early Bird Invitational. That was followed by a vault of 11-1 at the West Coast Invitational that set a meet record despite wet and windy conditions. She matched that height at the Ed Wells/Kiwanis Invitational.

"After the first couple of meets in the pole vault, I was like 'Whoa, I actually went that high,'" Welsh said. "It's given me a lot of confidence because I'm reaching heights that have been a surprise to me."

Now the goal is to win district and region titles, then place high in both at state.

"Considering how far she has come I think she a chance to do really well in the postseason," Mason said. "There's no telling what she can do the next few years. The sky is the limit for her."

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District meets

Class 2A-11

When/where: 11 a.m. Thursday; Sarasota Booker

Teams: Booker, Arcadia DeSoto County, Dunedin, Gibbs, Wauchula Hardee, Lakewood, Bradenton Southeast

Athletes to watch: Dunedin hurdler Ahmad Middleton has swept the 110 and 300 hurdles at every major meet this season and will be favored to move on as a district champion. Gibbs sprinter Jerosan Fletcher won the 100, 200, 400 and the long jump at last week's conference meet and will compete in all four events at districts. The Gladiators also have a slew of boys sprinters, led by Damien Daniels, Maurice Hall, Jaquez President and Craig Watts, who give them depth in the 100 and 200, and make them strong contenders in the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.

Class A-8

When/where: 1 p.m. today; Frostproof High

Teams: Winter Haven All Saints', Clearwater Central Catholic, Fort Meade, Lakeland Christian, Lakeland Santa Fe Catholic, Lakeland Sonrise Christian, Lake Wales Vanguard, Lakeland Victory Christian

Athletes to watch: The Marauders have used their football players to their advantage. CJ Cotman is among the favorites in the 100, and Diquan Walker has a chance to win the long jump. Both should be on the 4x100 relay team that also could place in the top two.

Class A-9

When/where: 3:30 p.m. Thursday; Calvary Christian

Teams: Academy at the Lakes, Bayshore Christian, Bishop McLaughlin, Calvary Christian, Cambridge Christian, Carrollwood Day, Indian Rocks Christian, Seffner Christian, Tampa Bay HEAT, Tampa Prep

Athletes to watch: Calvary Christian has a strong distance contingent, led by miler and half-miler Hannah Brookover, who was fourth in the mile last year at state but has run 10 seconds faster than that this season. Others that could advance to state include Indian Rocks Christian's Bobbi LaBrant (400, 800, pole vault), Seffner Christian thrower Jamari Johnson, Carrollwood Day sprinter Elias Early, Bishop McLaughlin high jumper Desiree' Nathe (a 5-4 jump her last time out) and Cambridge Christian's Madison Cox, who was fourth last year at state in the 100, and could be in the mix in the 400 as well.

Class A-10

When/where: 9:45 a.m. Thursday; Sarasota Out-of-Door

Teams: Admiral Farragut, Canterbury, Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, Port Charlotte Community Christian, Keswick Christian, Lakeside Christian, Northside Christian, Out-of-Door, Sarasota Christian, Shorecrest, St. Petersburg Catholic, Bradenton St. Stephen's.

Athletes to watch: Admiral Farragut's Brittany McGee will likely compete in the high jump, long jump and 100 and 300 hurdles. The two that she will concentrate on are the long jump and 100 hurdles, especially after finishing in the top two in both at nearly every major meet. Shorecrest's Assata Trader is the defending state champion in the 100. She will be pushed by Northside Christian's Deterrica Simpkins, who also is a contender in the 200. The Chargers' Alex Eaton should be in the top three in the 1,600.

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