The eyeball test for Lugoff-Elgin High’s pole-vaulting facilities belies the school’s talent and accomplishment in the event.
The vaulting pit lies at the end of the school’s football field, where athletes jump into faded padding first delivered to the school in 1982. Until renovations began this month, a dirt track surrounded the football field, meaning Lugoff-Elgin didn’t have any home meets.
Yet from this, Blake Hawkey reached into his own glorious pole-vaulting past to build a dominating program.
A two-time state champion for the Demons three decades ago, Hawkey has coached four consecutive Class 3A pole-vaulting champions for Lugoff-Elgin. That includes Jonathan Watts, who on May 9 at Spring Valley High’s Harry Parone Stadium won his second state title in a row.
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“It puts us on the map, pole vaulting” said Lugoff-Elgin graduate Justin Crawford, the 2006 state champion who now competes for USC-Upstate.
Thomas Wright’s fifth-place finish in the 2003 Class 3A state meet began the program’s ascension that continues today. Wright finished second in 2004, then won the state championship with a vault of 14 feet, six inches in 2005.
That was also the year of Lugoff-Elgin’s last home track meet. Wright, a senior, attempted to break Hawkey’s school-record vault of 15-0 but failed.
The following year, Crawford won the state at 13-6 as a junior and appeared primed to match his coach as a two-time champion.
But the Demons program proved an obstacle
Along came Watts, a sophomore, who vaulted 14-0 at the Class 3A meet to finish six inches ahead of Crawford and fellow Lugoff-Elgin athlete Jackie Mincey. They each vaulted 13-6 to give the Demons the top three finishers in the state.
John Walker, a sophomore, placed fifth at 12-6 as Lugoff-Elgin logged 26 points in the pole-vault alone.
This month, Watts repeated his state championship, needing to vault just 13-6 to take home the gold medal. Sophomore Dustin Branham placed fifth at 12-6 while freshman Will Myers was sixth at the same height, meaning Lugoff-Elgin scored big in its signature event once again.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Hawkey said. “I really enjoy this time of year. The kids make a lot of progress.”
Progress is an understatement.
Branham and Myers had never vaulted before this spring, which reflects well on Hawkey’s coaching ability. He quickly deflects that praise, however, saying the athletic kids deserve just as much credit.
“You can take a good athlete and make him a good vaulter if you know how to coach them,” Hawkey said.
Hawkey actually disproves his own premise.
As a student at Lugoff-Elgin High in the late 70s, he took to the pole vault because his father had competed in the event. The school didn’t have any coaches with vaulting experience, so Hawkey found his own. He began a letter-writing correspondence with Dick Ganslen, the author of the sport’s bible, “Mechanics of the Pole Vault.”
“I was just a high-school guy looking for answers,” Hawkey said. “I would write him and he would write me back.”
The answers were golden. Hawkey won state championships in 1978 and 1979. His vault of 15-0 stood as the state record for nine years and remains Lugoff-Elgin High’s school record.
Hawkey received an appointment to West Point, where he competed for Army without a vaulting coach.
“The guy who recruited me left for the University of Florida,” Hawkey said.
That didn’t slow him down. Hawkey vaulted 17 feet as a collegian.
He served his five-year military commitment before working for Baxter Healthcare and running his own business. But the fire to coach the pole vault still burned inside of him.
In 2000, he moved back to Lugoff-Elgin from Georgia to coach the Demons track program. He was stunned by what he saw.
The pit padding was stuffed under the football stands. The poles were sitting next to a chain-link fence with grass growing over them.
“They just forgot about it, basically,” Hawkey said.
It didn’t take him long to rejuvenate things. He said the school’s administration has supported him along the way, allowing for one or two new poles to be purchased each year. The poles cost around $300.
“It is an expensive event,” Hawkey said. “Poles are $300 each. Over time, we’ve just collected them.”
Just as they’ve collected medals at the state track meet.
“Mostly I just yell at them,” Hawkey deadpanned when asked about his coaching technique for vaulters.
Turning serious, he said, “We do a lot of drills. We work a lot on the approach. Once you are off the ground, you are the cannonball out of the cannon. So we work a lot on the approach and we work on basic drills to simulate things in the air.”
When track season rolls around next spring, Lugoff-Elgin High will have a new track, so it can begin having home meets again.
This season, the pits were so close to the football field that they were soaked with water from the sprinkler system. But Watts made the best of the situation.
“It felt good on hot days,” he said. “We worked with it. It was pretty good for us.”
Pretty good doesn’t begin to describe what the Demons have accomplished.
Reach Wiseman at 803-771-8472