ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
It may sound corny to say that Sheldon Funk has taken pole vaulting to new heights at Hillsboro High School, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Trojan senior claimed the school record last year as a junior by clearing 14 feet even, eclipsing the mark of 13-6 set by Brian Kroeker in 1993.
This season, Funk has already raised that standard twice-clearing 14-1 at the James Thomas Invitational April 26, then soaring over 14-7 at the Hesston Invitational last Thursday.
That record came with some help from a new friend.
“I got a new pole, which has helped a lot,” Funk said. “That’s what helped me set this (latest) record.”
The new pole is longer and heavier, so when Funk plants and then bends the pole as he begins a vault, the extra spring should send him to new heights, literally and figuratively.
“It pushes harder on top, plus it’s longer, so it helps,” Funk said. “I’m still not at the top of the pole yet, so I’ve got a few inches to spare yet.”
He has his sights set on clearing 15-3 by the end of this season.
“I pretty much set a goal each year,” Funk said. “Last year it was 13-7, to beat the record for our high school. I made that and have made 14. This year, I’ve kind of set a 15-3 goal.
“That’s definitely out there, but I went to a Nebraska (University) pole vault camp this summer, and that’s where I set that goal. That’s where I want to be this year.”
Whether he achieves the mark or not, Funk has come along way since Brian Nickel talked Funk into trying the event in middle school
“We’ve always been friends,” said Funk, who was a year behind Nickel in school. “He pole vaulted in middle school, so I decided I might as well try it, too. I just kept going through middle school and now high school.”
But Funk’s best mark in middle school was only 8-6. It wasn’t until the middle of his freshman year that he took a huge step forward in the sport.
“My freshman year, I started to bend the pole-and that’s the big deal now,” he said. “I started jumping about two feet higher immediately. After that, I just kept going.”
Bending the pole for the first time is as much a mental accomplishment as a physical one.
“You’ve got to get the guts to do it the first time,” he said. “That’s the big deal, because the first time you try it, you pretty much get thrown back for sure. That happened to me, but I just kept trying.
“You develop speed, start getting your plant down, and just get the confidence to hit it. Pretty soon you can bend (the pole) and you can start going.”
Assistant coach Corey Burton has been Funk’s guide through the process.
“Coach Burton was a great help there,” Funk said. “He’s been able to bend the pole, and he’s shows me in practice.”
The risk that comes with pole vaulting has made national and state headlines this year with the deaths of two vaulters, one in college and the other from a Wichita high school
“It doesn’t really bother me,” Funk said about the tragedies. “I’ve grown up on motorcycles, and it’s a lot more dangerous riding moto-cross. Most things in school don’t really bother me, danger-wise.
“It affects you a little bit when you hear a kid dies and he’s only going 12 feet (high)-but not too much,” he added. “You don’t want to get it in your head.You’ve got to keep the confidence.”
At the Hesston meet, Funk competed against vaulters from Cheney who were wearing protective head gear.
“That was first time I’d seen that,” Funk said. “It’s safer, but I don’t know-it takes a little bit of the risk out of the sport. That’s the fun part. I like the risk.”
Beyond maintaining the proper mental state, physical training is important for a vaulter, too.
“A lot of upper body strength is definitely the key,” Funk said. “You have to be pretty explosive through the drive of the pole. You’ve got to get up enough speed to get pole to bend.”
Funk lifts weights year round to get the right muscles into the best condition. He wants to be in top form by the time the state meet rolls around later this month.
Last year, Funk qualified for state, but missed all three of his preliminary vaults. It was a frustrating day to say the least.
“The weather was a little bit cold, and I thought (Class) 4A was before we were,” Funk recalled.
“All of a sudden we were up and going. Mentally, I wasn’t quite right. I felt like I was prepared, but in pole vault you have to hit every little thing perfect. There’s a lot of room for error.”
With his confidence back in tact and a new and better pole in his hands, the senior is looking optimistically at his chances at state this year, and of reaching his goal of clearing 15-3.
“I attempted 15 feet twice (at Hesston), and the first one I actually got a pretty good push-off,” he said.
“So it’s hopefully coming.”