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Johnston vaults to new heights

Mail Tribune photos / Jim Craven

When Robbie Johnston broke his pole and cut his left hand during a practice jump Tuesday, the Eagle Point High pole vaulter was suddenly in a state of disarray as the Southern Oregon Conference district meet neared.

Would his hand be healed in time?

Would his confidence be shaken?

And whose pole would he use?

So many issues. So little time to resolve them.

But Johnston overcame the obstacles and catapulted himself to a lifetime best and school-record height of 14 feet, 6 inches during the opening day of the district meet Thursday at Bowerman Field.

Grants Pass and Klamath Union scored 41 points each to tie for the lead in the boys competition. North Medford is in third place with 29 points, followed by Roseburg (28.5), Eagle Point (25.5), Ashland (11), Crater (11) and South Medford (8).

The coed meet resumes Saturday at 11 a.m.

"I took two practice jumps yesterday and my hand hurt pretty bad," Johnston said. "There was no way I was going to miss this meet, but I was worried how my hand would hold up."

As it turned out, that magic medicine called adrenaline kicked in and Johnston, using a pole he borrowed from South Medford, beat a loaded field to punch his ticket to next week's Class 4A state meet in Eugene.

Klamath Union's Jon Fay, the pre-meet favorite who entered with a best of 14-7, managed 13-8 to secure second place and the other berth to state. Fay edged out Eagle Point's Steve Hammond, who also cleared 13-8, on fewer misses.

Grants Pass vaulters Victor Daugherty and Dustin Boehm, who came into the meet with the third- and fourth-best marks, failed to clear the opening height.

Johnston had his own struggles, needing a third and final attempt to get over the bar at 13-8. Had he failed, he wouldn't have qualified for the state meet.

"I've cleared that height (13-8) a million times, but I definitely felt some pressure on that jump," said Johnston, a sophomore who finished ninth at last year's state meet. "It was pretty nerve-racking going down the runway knowing I had to make it, or that was it."

Johnston broke the school record in his first meet this season when he cleared 14-3. He then went into a slump but broke out of it with another 14-3 vault at the Crater Classic on April 20, followed by a 14-4 effort at the Grants Pass Rotary meet on May 4.

All along, he's been working to clean up his technique at the top of his jumps while also improving his speed down the runway.

"I don't really have sprinter's speed, but I've gotten faster just by changing my running style," Johnston said. "I used to take big, long steps. Now I take shorter, quicker ones, and I've shortened my approach.

"The pole vault is a very technical event, and I've still got a long ways to go."

After conquering 14-6, Johnston made three attempts at 15-0. None could be described as a close miss, but he was on top of the bar each time.

"I've almost made 15 feet in practice," he said. "Hopefully I can get it next week at state."

In Thursday's other boys finals:

? North Medford's Aaron Barlow reached lifetime bests three different times en route to winning the long jump with a mark of 21-93/4. Kory Mahr of Grants Pass finished second with a personal-record leap of 21-03/4.

"I've been working on extending my legs as far as I can when I get in the air," said Barlow, who sailed over the 21-foot plateau on all six of his jumps. "I knew I was going to have a good day today, but I also know I have a better one in me. I know I can go 22 feet."

? Roseburg's Joe Newton didn't come close to his state-leading mark of 193-8 in the discus, but his top throw of 175-0 was good enough to win district. Casey McIntosh of Grants Pass finished second at 166-10.

? Klamath Union's Zach Tucker bested the high jump field with a leap of 6-4. Eagle Point's Brandon Anderson, who is out for track for the first time, claimed the other state berth by going 6-1, and edging Grants Pass' Bruce Voges on fewer misses.

? Jacob Gomez surely could have broken the meet record of 8:43.78 in the 3,000 meters, but the Klamath Union distance phenom hung back with teammate Kevin Pellegrino in a strategical maneuver that helped them go 1-2.

Gomez, who sped to an 8:19.73 clocking at the Centennial Invitational on April 27 - the fifth-fastest time in state history - was content to help out his teammate and team on the warm afternoon.

"The meet record was in the back of my mind, but it went out the window on the third lap," Gomez said. "We all went out a little slow, maybe because of the heat. It's no big deal. I'm sure I'll run a lot faster next week (at the state meet)."

Pre-meet favorite South Medford stumbled a little Thursday, scoring fewer points than anticipated in the long jump and 3,000. But the Panthers picked up bonus points when Rob Brown managed fifth place in the discus, and they moved all of their big guns - sprinters Jonathan Klenke, Andres Reed and Dan Hilgendorf and middle distance runner Shaun Olson - through the preliminary heats and into the finals.

"We're fine," South Medford coach Bill Rowan said. "The meet is still there to be won on Saturday."

North Medford only wishes it could say the same. The Tornado might have seen its hopes for a second straight district crown vanish when Chris Vorgang false-started in the 110-meter hurdles. Vorgang owns the third-fastest clocking in the state in the event at 14.4.

"I guess it was nerves," Vorgang said. "I'm not going to offer any excuses. I just blew it."

Vorgang took out his frustrations in the 300 hurdle prelims when he won his heat in a lifetime best of 38.74.

The Tornado picked up bonus points when Barlow took fifth in the high jump and freshman Steve Johnson grabbed sixth in the discus.

Reach reporter Don Hunt at 776-4469, or e-mail dhunt@mailtribune.com

Eagle Point pole vaulter Robbie Johnston clears the bar set at 14-6 and grabs the victory in Thursday's SOC district track meet. The mark is a lifetime best and establishes a school record. The sophomore will compete at next week's state meet in Eugene.