Jayhawk Insider: Kansas men’s vaulters on the road to historical season
Just two weekends into 2019 and the Kansas men’s track & field pole vaulters have already rewritten the record books, but that figures to be a common occurrence considering the depth of talent that KU associate head coach Tom Hays’ squad has.
Hays, a highly-respected pole vault coach that is known nationally for landing some of the best high school pole vaulters in the nation and evolving them into All-America caliber student-athletes, has been around pole vaulting for decades. Vaulting for the Jayhawks in in the 1980s, then transitioning to coaching, Hays made stops at Johnson County Community College, Nevada, Wichita State and Arizona before landing back at his alma mater 14 seasons ago.
Including current Jayhawk Hussain Al Hizam, Hays has produced four NCAA Champions while at Kansas and 20 Big 12 Champions. Needless to say, Hays has coached and been around some spectacular pole vault squads in his life, but even he admits his current group of men’s vaulters have a unique opportunity and that their early-season success is unlike anything he’s seen before.
“This may be the best early season vaulting I’ve seen from any college team,” he said.
So what makes this season special so far?
In 2019, three athletes have cleared 5.50 meters (18-0.5 ft.) or better. To put that into perspective, prior to this indoor season only six Jayhawks in program history—a program that started in 1901—have cleared that height or better during the indoor campaign. One of those six Jayhawks includes Al Hizam, the defending NCAA indoor champion.
With a squad that has so many talented vaulters, Al Hizam sees the benefits of jumping with those talented teammates every day in practice.
“I think it is amazing that we have a real competition every single day no matter what the workout is,” Al Hizam said. “I think that gives us a huge advantage over other teams. Every single one of us has incredible talent and that is a major key to success as team.”
In the first weekend of 2019 for the KU vaulters at the National Pole Vault Summit in Reno, Nevada, an event that attracts the top pole vault talent year-in and year-out, Hays’ vaulters finished 1-2-3-4 in the collegiate men’s section. The top-two finishers were underclassmen; Zach Bradford, a freshman from Bloomington, Illinois, and Kyle Rogers, a sophomore from Liberty, Missouri. The pair cleared 5.50 meters (18-0.5 ft.) to become just the seventh and eighth Jayhawks to do so during the indoor season.
Rogers placed seventh at the Big 12 Indoor Championship in 2018 with a clearance of 5.04 meters (16-6.5 ft.), then flourished during the outdoor season, where is vaulted over 5.28 meters (17-3.75 ft.) at the Big 12 Outdoor Championship and narrowly missed out on earning a trip to Eugene, Oregon for the NCAA Outdoor Championships, finishing 16th at the West Preliminary Round in Sacramento, California.
Bradford was a highly-touted recruit that was brought in knowing he would have an immediate impact on the entire Kansas men’s squad. He was a four-time conference champion and three-time Illinois state champion in the pole vault in high school, breaking school and state records along the way. Bradford was decorated outside of the high school realm as well, winning the 2018 New Balance National indoor championship, the 2018 USATF/AAU national championship, and earning a trip to Tampere, Finland to represent the United States of America in the 2018 U20 World Championships, where he finished runner-up.
“Zach joining our team has added tremendous depth to our squad,” Al Hizam said. “Being a freshman is hard and to start making these big bars right away is incredible and definitely makes each and every one of us to want to jump higher every workout and every meet.”
With those two underclassmen and the experience of a national champion in Al Hizam, and another Big 12 champion – Paulo Benavides, who won the 2017 Big 12 indoor title, Hays sees potential he’s never seen before.
“I’m really excited about Kansas vaulting because it looks like we can rewrite the history books of the best college pole vaulting squad ever,” Hays said. “No collegiate team has ever had four guys over 5.60 (meters) in one season, which these guys can actually start to think about. I hope with big expectations we can deliver big results.”
Two of the four major contributors on the squad have already gotten dangerously close to getting over that 5.60-meter (18-4.5 ft.) mark. Al Hizam and Bradford lit up the Anschutz Sports Pavilion at the Jayhawk Classic on January 26. The two went jump-for-jump, raising the bar and successfully clearing 5.58 meters (18-3.75 ft.) on their way to a 1-2 finish in the event and giving fans a glimpse of an exciting year at Kansas.
Hussain Al Hizam matches Bradford at 5.58m and ties the facility record! The pair finish 1&2 in the men’s vault. #KUtrack pic.twitter.com/DkWTuHv7H8
— Kansas Track & Field (@KUTrack) January 27, 2019
The 5.58-meter clearance gave the two a share of the Anschutz Pavilion facility record, breaking the previous-best mark of 5.57 meters (18-3.25 ft.) set by Jake Albright in December of 2017. The height also all-but solidified their spots at the NCAA Indoor Championships in Birmingham, Alabama this March as the two now rank No. 5 in the NCAA Indoor this season, and only need to stay in the top-16 by the end of conference weekend to qualify.
“I was on the first team that used Anschutz Pavilion and have watched American record holders, Olympians and NCAA champions jump in this building” Hays said. “To have two athletes on this squad break the building record on the same night so early in the season is truly remarkable.”
The excitement isn’t just sitting with Coach Hays, either. The athletes know they are a part of something special and feel they are on the verge of history.
“Having a group as talented and motivated as the group we have here makes for a great environment to train in the way everyone can push each other in different ways to be better and move closer to all of our goals,” Benavides said. “I’ve been training with Hussain for quite some time now and he’s been great at bringing energy to the group and has provided a very competitive environment to be in. Now having Zach come in this year, I think it gets the entire group even more motivated and makes already the competitive and exciting practices even more so.”
“Coming from the club vaulting circuit and having to compete against myself, then coming to Kansas and having Hussain the national champion, and guys like Paulo and Kyle to practice with has really pushed me to vault higher,” Bradford said.
Bradford know that as much it helps to have great teammates, it won’t be by luck that they make history, and he and the rest of the group are relying on one of the main reasons they all chose Kansas in the first place to help them achieve their goals – Coach Hays.
“The help from Coach Hays and the volunteer assistants Nick Maestretti, Jake Albright and Nick Meyer – they all want to see great things out of me and push me every day at practice,” Bradford said. “I’m just excited to see where this season will take us as a team.”
Benavides agrees that the coaching will be a huge factor to the team’s success.
“Coach Hays has been a great coach to jump for,” Benavides said. “He’s always been very supportive and has given us all the tools we need in order to be successful. He has so much experience that every day we are with him there is so much we can always learn. Coach Hays has also been a big part in pushing our team to be the best because he knows what we are all capable of achieving and takes it upon himself to make sure we get the most out of every training session.”
As much potential as there is for this group, nothing is guaranteed in pole vaulting, especially not this year. At the end of the 2018 season, only 11 athletes had cleared 5.50 meters (18-0.5 ft.). This season, just a few weeks into the indoor campaign, 12 athletes on the NCAA descending order list have went over 5.52 meters (18-1.25 ft.).
“This is going to be a crazy year,” Hays said. “This may be the best year in college pole vaulting history. The freshman class (in the entire NCAA) has already jumped 5.83 meters (19-1.5 ft.), 5.71 (18-8.75 ft.), 5.58 (18-3.75 ft.) and 5.57 meters (18-3.25 ft.). Two of those are in our conference.”
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