The dilemma facing Brooke Tjerrild and the rest of the girls pole vault field at the 99th CIF State Track and Field Championships was simple:
Unless something fluky happened, they were all competing for second place behind Canyon High-Anaheim’s Rachel Baxter.
Which is fine, because it caused Tjerrild and everyone else to raise their games.
Entering Saturday’s final at Veterans Memorial Stadium as defending champion and heavy favorite, Baxter stamped her credentials by clearing 14 feet and soaring to a second straight state meet gold medal.
Baxter’s presence seemed to also lift Tjerrild, the senior from Clovis North, who took the silver with a personal-record height of 13-6 that delighted the hometown crowd.
“It’s a good motivator,” said Tjerrid, who improved her fifth-place finish from last year. “She’s really nice and encourages everyone, so it pushes you to jump as high as you can and bring on the competition.”
We love coming to Fresno. Fresno treats us well. This facility is beautiful.
B.J. Vandrovec, Rachel Baxter’s pole vault coach
On a breezy evening in northwest Clovis, Baxter made three attempts at 14-5 that would’ve upped her own national record by one inch.
Each time she seemed to clear the bar, only to graze it with her legs.
“It was super close,” Baxter said. “I know I can get it in the future, but I wanted to do it here because this is a really special meet to me.”
Besides three-event sensation Tara Davis, Agoura’s triple gold medalist in the long jump, triple jump and 100 hurdles, Baxter was the state meet’s marquee attraction.
In a sport where incremental improvements are typically the norm, Baxter burst onto the scene as a sophomore by raising her PR an unheard of 35 inches (from 10-6 to 13-5) in a 12-month span. The latter mark netted her a state silver medal, and as a junior she cleared 14-2 to win gold.
Baxter’s current PR of 14-4, set May 26 at the Southern Section Masters Meet, would place her among the top 10 of the current NCAA Division I field. She’ll be among it starting next season at Virginia Tech, one of the nation’s top vaulting programs.
Few in California track circles will be surprised if in three years Baxter represents Team USA at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“Yes, I do see her doing that one day, but she’s got to earn it,” said B.J. Vandrovec, Baxter’s coach. “There’s still a lot of room to grow.”
Despite attending a high school that lacks pole vaulting facilities and competing in a league that doesn’t sponsor the event, Baxter became the first female vaulter in California history to win two golds and a silver.
10Difference (in inches) between Rachel Baxter’s PR of 14-4 and the next-closest competitor in the girls pole vault
Instead of Canyon’s coaches, she’s trained privately by Vandrovec at Orange County-based Victory Performance Athletics.
What separates Baxter from this field? For one, her speed. She’s noticeably faster down the runway, which allows her to gain the advantage of longer poles. And thanks to a background in gymnastics, she also has what coaches call “kinesthetic awareness” – the innate ability to control your body in midair.
“When you leave the ground and go upside down, some people panic,” explained Bob Fraley, the former Fresno State coach and pole vault pioneer. “Gymnasts don’t do that. They already know that feeling.”
In Baxter’s case, there’s another quality that belies her small stature, blond ponytail and broad smile: She’s as tough as cast iron.
“I’ve coached a long time,” said Richard Gibbs, the head coach at crosstown Servite. “Rachel is the toughest athlete I’ve ever seen.”
To illustrate his point, Gibbs launches into a story about the time Baxter cleared the bar during a meet only to get herself impaled upon landing by the tip of the pole.
“The official asked if she was OK and the only thing she said was, ‘Give me my pole,’ ” Gibbs recalled. “And she went down and set the record. Any other kid I’ve ever had would’ve called it a day.”
She’s very down to earth. I really enjoy jumping with her. She pushes me.
Clovis North’s Brooke Tjerrild, on Rachel Baxter
In just about any other year, Tjerrild, Clovis West sophomore Elizabeth Funk (who twice equaled her PR of 12-6 over the weekend) and a few others would’ve been battling for first place.
Just not when they’re up against the top vaulter in state history.
Still, the Cal Poly-bound Tjerrild (pronounced “like old chair, but backward”) didn’t sound or look at all disappointed with the silver medal dangling around her neck.
“It was a great way to finish off the season,” she said. “I kind of met my goal of PR’ing by exactly 1 foot this year. I’m thrilled.”
When Tjerrild cleared 13 feet, the hometown fans erupted in cheers. Clovis North vault coach Russell Weaver pumped his fist.
When Tjerrild cleared 13 feet on her second attempt, the hometown fans erupted in cheers. Clovis North vault coach Russell Weaver pumped his fist.
“I hit the bar a little bit, so I wasn’t sure if it would stay on,” she said. “But it counted and I was so happy to have all my friends and family in the stands.”
Tjerrild then made three attempts at 14 feet, a height she doesn’t even attempt at practice. None of them were particularly close but gave her something to shoot for in the future.
Watching from up the runway with a beaming smile, Baxter enjoyed it, too.
“I knew Brooke was looking really good this year, and it was super cool to get to jump with her because I don’t get to jump with her very often,” she said. “She was really pushing me to get over that bar. It was really nice to have her with me.”