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Gardner High Wildcats' track team launches itself to new heights.

Byline: Jay Gearan

GARDNER - For many years, nearly a decade, the Gardner High School outdoor track team would have to forfeit nine points in every meet when traveling to opposing teams' facilities that were equipped with pole vaulting apparatus.

When the Wildcats would lose a track meet by a slim margin, coaches and athletes would lament the loss of the pole vault area in which to practice and compete.

No more. Now at Watkins Field in Gardner is a safe, fully padded pole vault area where the Wildcats are reaching new heights.

"In the past, we would be down nine points right away in a meet," said Gardner High coach Mike Lawrence. "Now we have the opportunity to fight for those nine points."

Mr. Lawrence added that by including pole vaulting in his team's list of competing events, the Wildcats' point totals have risen in dual meets. Also, he knows that the pole vaulting points will certainly help in the bigger, districtwide meets.

"It's great having pole vault back at the Gardner track as an event," said Jack Jackman, an assistant coach who, along with John Meany, specializes in helping the young athletes learn pole vaulting techniques. "The kids love it."

Although on a short-time learning curve, several Gardner pole vaulters have already impressed their coaches, led by sophomore Ryan Benoit, who recently cleared 10 feet at a meet and qualified for the state meet in June.

"Ryan is definitely one of our highlights," Mr. Lawrence said. "He's bettered some kids from other schools who have been pole vaulting for many more years."

Other young vaulters include sophomore Amy Couture, who has cleared the seven-foot barrier and senior Mettaya Potter, who wasn't going to come out for track, but changed her mind when she heard the pole vault event was making a long-awaited comeback. Both girls have qualified for the district meet.

Junior Dan Kelley, and sophomore John Hansen, along with freshman Meg Merchant, are also helping the Wildcats garner valuable points in dual meets.

Watkins Field, decades ago, used to be the site for many big track meets, including the state meet. Now with a pole vault area, the more prestigious meets are returning - including today's boys' Mid-Wach B League Meet.

In the mid-1990s, because of safety concerns, pole vaulting areas had to be updated with more expensive, certified equipment. At several area schools, including Gardner High, lack of funds prohibited the updating and the event was dropped from the standard home list of competitions within a given meet.

Through the combined efforts of the track and cross country booster club, funds approved by the Gardner City Council and donations from many people in the city, the track team was able to purchase pole vaulting apparatus for the 2008 spring track season.

"We got everything on sale, but the total cost was close to $15,000," said Mr. Lawrence, who expressed deep gratitude to all who contributed. "The poles alone cost about $400 apiece."

Mr. Jackman, a former pole vaulter in his high school days at Fitchburg High back in the late 1980s, talked about what he thinks are key characteristics of pole vaulters.

He said, "You have to have a little bit of speed and strength within yourself. To get airborne, you have to be willing to hang upside down on a pole and trust that the pole will bring you up."

Mr. Jackman jokingly added, "And you have to be a little crazy."

What pleased Mr. Lawrence the most, perhaps, was something Ms. Couture said recently at a practice. "Coach, a year ago, I thought I wasn't good at any sport. And now, I'm one of the best in the school."

"Our coaches are very helpful," said sophomore Stevie Cormier, who added with a chuckle, "Pole vaulting really lifts me up."

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: (1) From left, pole vaulters Meg Merchant, Mettaya Potter, Amy Couture, John Hansen and Dan Kelley in front of coach Jack Jackman. (2) Amy Couture, of the Gardner High Wildcats track team, demonstrates a pole vault.

PHOTOG: JAY GEARAN
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Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 22, 2008
Words:676
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