State track preview -- Pole vaulting tradition continues in Norton with trio of Class 3A qualifiers
By CONOR NICHOLL
Norton Community High School track coach Jason Jones has focused on consistency, technique and areas that "appear to be minor things," but are critical to success with his Bluejay pole vaulters. Jones' tutelage and serious personality has annually helped Norton rank among Class 3A's elite in pole vaulting.
This year, Jones has noticed areas of improvement with each of his three state qualifying vaulters that will compete at the state meet Friday and Saturday at Wichita State University's Cessna Stadium.
"They all struggle on completely different things," Jones said. "It's just like any technical event. Each individual is going to have their own struggles. It doesn't seem to ever happen that multiple athletes are struggling at the same thing at the same time."
Norton has senior Bailey Ambrosier, a two-time defending state champion, senior Austin Hager, a four-time qualifier and one-time placer, and junior Kenzie Esslinger, a state qualifier last year. Ambrosier and Hager hold the school marks at 10-9 and 14-6, respectively.
Ambrosier will try to become the first area girl vaulter to win three pole vaulting championships. Four vaulters in Kansas history have three pole vaulting crowns, and El Dorado's Jamie House collected four from 2008-11.
Based on regional seeds, Hager is tied for first with a 14 foot vault last week. But all three have bought into Jones' workouts and taking "one week at a time," a longtime Jones' mantra of never looking ahead or checking how other opponents are doing.
Jones first started to pole vault in junior high when he looked for another event where he could be competitive. Jones went to Logan, which has produced several terrific vaulters in recent years. Jones still holds the school mark with a 15 foot, 2 inch clearance in 1994. Former Trojan Brady Tien, a state champion and current junior and All-American at Fort Hays State University, challenged Jones' mark.
"He was close," Jones said, flashing a rare smile.
Jones vaulted at FHSU - and has helped Norton break several long-standing marks and collect state medals. Hager broke a school record that had stood since 1968, while Norton's girls mark had stood since 2003 before Ambrosier. Norton has qualified at least two pole vaulters in the last four years, including three in each of the last three.
"It's different for everybody," Jones said. "It starts at the back of the runway with the approach, and it's all the way through the whole vault. I just kind of look at each individual and see what their struggles are, and that's what we work on."
As a freshman, Hager took sixth and then-Norton junior Seth Antrim finished second. In 2012, Antrim finished seventh in his final year, Hager eighth. Last spring, Hager was third. Hager cleared 14-6 at the regional last spring and nearly made 15 feet.
This year, Hager didn't clear 14 feet until last Friday.
Hager has normally started further back on the runway to gain more speed and has sometimes blown through the pole vault bar when he vaults in the air. Hager has preferred to use a smaller pole at 14-155 or 14-160, but Jones has tried to get him on a bigger pole.
"I definitely need to improve on my top end," Hager said. "When I get upside down, I just need to pull straight. I pull out early, and it just throws everything off."
Esslinger, who has consistently cleared 9-6, went 10 feet at Russell on May 9 to beat Ambrosier. She said Jones has improved her technique and mentality.
"Not giving up on yourself," Esslinger said.
Jones and Ambrosier have developed a strong relationship.
"She is able to talk to me openly, and I am able to talk to her openly," Jones said.
Asked what she has learned the most from Jones, Ambrosier said, "to not complain."
"To be mentally tough, and be confident in your abilities and what you have practiced," he said.
Ambrosier leads the 3A with a season-best vault of 10-9 set at Oberlin on May 6. Jones and her have worked on several areas, including hand placement on the pole.
"My plant has improved and also just getting more vertical and working on turning better," Ambrosier said.
While many vaulters excel at just the vault, Ambrosier is strong in many events. Jones said a big hurdle has been vaulting around Ambrosier's various track events. Ambrosier has routinely ran the 400-meter dash, 1,600-meter and 3,200 meter relays.
She qualified in the pole vault and 3,200 relay, but won't have the scheduling conflict this weekend. The pole vault will occur at 6:30 p.m. Friday, the relay around 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning.