Keepers of the vault

Mercury News

Few sporting endeavors require the demands of the pole vault: speed, strength, technique and mental toughness. And all must come together in a single sequence.

The event intimidates many and is mastered by few -- fewer still in American high school track and field. Entire states have shelved the event because of safety, insurance and cost concerns.

Only half the leagues in the Central Coast Section offer the event. But there are a few outposts where pole vault continues to be taught, and one place -- St. Francis -- where the sport is thriving like never before.

Of the top five boys marks in the CCS, four are from St. Francis. Of the top three girls, two are Lancers.

Five St. Francis vaulters have cleared 14 feet, and six more have cleared 13. Two girls have cleared 12. That kind of quality and depth at one school is practically unheard of.

``Most people that have followed the event would say it's unprecedented,'' said Stanford pole vault coach Casey Roche, whose sons Casey and Doug are among the Lancers standouts.

Just as impressive is the potential. The Lancers are led by sophomores: Casey Roche cleared 15-5 last summer and believes he can break the CCS record (17-1) before he's through. Ex-gymnast Natasha Barthel, who took up the sport a year ago, already has done so -- she set a CCS standard of 12-5 in her first outdoor meet this season.

She and junior Taylor Franklin (12-0), a former circus acrobat (Cirque San Jose), form the best one-two punch in girls section history. Taylor was fourth in the state last spring.

Among the boys, junior Ben Sheehan (14-6), senior Kyle Chronis (14-6) and senior Doug Roche (14-0) all have section-title and major college aspirations.

But perhaps the most intriguing is the group's least-experienced jumper. Kyle Mills-Bunje, a junior, is the section leader in the long and triple jumps. He first took up the vault last summer to train for a decathlon, and he already has a 14-7 best.

``I told his parents, I'll help him with the decathlon, and he could be a very good jumper,'' said Roche, who coached 2004 Olympic silver medalist Toby Stevenson. ``But he could be a world-class pole vaulter.

``He's very strong, very explosive, very powerful and completely devoid of fear. Not only doesn't he have a fear of heights, but he craves heights. He's probably every parent's nightmare, but a pole vault coach's dream.''

While many of the Lancers vaulters have been influenced by Roche and San Jose vault guru Bob Slover, it's longtime coach Tom Tuite who has provided day-to-day direction.

Tuite was a standout miler at Serra and a member of San Jose State's 1962 NCAA championship cross-country team, but he has never attempted a vault. While head coach at St. Francis, his desire to properly coach a talented vaulter named Ben Mahoney in 1979 inspired him to become an expert.

For Tuite, the challenge will be to advance all his talent out of a West Catholic Athletic League meet that ensures only three qualifiers for CCS, and from CCS to the state meet. It can be done by hitting standards and automatic-qualifying marks.

Listening to the sophomore Roche, it shouldn't be a problem.

``I think all the guys right now are shooting for 16 feet,'' said Roche, of a height that hasn't been reached in the CCS meet since 1996. ``What generally happens is when one person makes a breakthrough, everyone makes a breakthrough. Everyone pushes each other to jump higher.''

Contact David Kiefer at or (408) 920-2703.