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Pirate pole vaults to bigger stage
By JAMAL THALJI
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 27, 2000
DADE CITY -- The difference between the state tournament and the Olympics, between local and national recognition, between paying for college or letting a Division I school do it for you, is simply a matter of inches.
It took Pasco pole vaulter Sarah James just one leap to learn that.
At the Feb. 18 Lady Bear Invitational at Central, James, who took fourth at state last season, cleared 11 feet, 7 inches to win the event.
And enter a whole new arena of competition.
Junior Nationals. The Olympics. A Division I scholarship. NCAA schools vying for her skills.
Forget winning state. This season, James is out to conquer a whole new world.
"I want to go for it all," the senior said.
To understand what James has done, consider this: Last season, she finished fourth at the state meet with a subpar leap of 9-6. She then cleared 10-6 to win the Bay Area Youth Track and Field meet. During the summer, after endless drilling and practice, after honing her technique and streamlining her form, after mastering a bigger pole, after attending camp after camp after camp, James managed to add 13 inches to her vault -- and expand her horizons.
That leap made her the top prep vaulter in the Southeast and one of the top prep vaulters in the nation. It qualified her to spend a week in July at the Olympic Development Training Center in San Diego, making her a top prospect for the Olympics. It also qualified her for the Outdoor National Championships June 16-17 at North Carolina State and the Junior Nationals at the University of North Texas June 23-24, where she will compete against college freshmen and sophomores.
Of course, James has to finish her senior season first -- and she's chasing a high bench mark.
The state record is 12-8, set by Deanna Shuler of Palm Beach Gardens Dwyer in 1998. If James had vaulted 11-7 at the state meet, it would have bested the 2A record of 9-61/4 set in 1998 by Dahlia Lichter of Fort Lauderdale U.
Reaching 12-8 this season is not out of the question for her. Thus, she is already the favorite to win a state title.
"I had no idea it would turn out like this," she said. "I didn't know anything about (the sport). I just thought it would be fun to do."
Now she's on official recruiting visits. She has already visited Tennessee and LSU. Clemson and Georgia are next. Florida and Florida State? She doesn't think so.
Most important, though, is the sense of accomplishment. "It makes me feel really good because I worked for something really hard and I'm achieving (my goal)," she said. "I'm really happy about that."
So is her coach.
"It's really been a pleasant surprise," Pasco girls coach Brian Woods said. "I figured she would be one of the best in the state; that she would definitely be a contender. She came in and ... established herself as the dominant vaulter in the state of Florida."
More impressively, she isn't even close to reaching her potential, Woods said.
"She's gotten a lot better, but she still has some technical flaws," he said. "I felt she jumped well, but it's actually good that she wasn't doing it perfectly yet because I see so much room for improvement. It means she's just going to get better and better."
Last season, she was the SAC runner-up, won at the district and regional meets and took fourth at state on an 11-foot pole. Now she's on an 13-foot pole and hitting 11-5 consistently in practice.
"I could probably get her on an even bigger pole before the end of the season," Woods said.
Besides the boost that repetition and drilling have given her skills, James is just a natural. "Definitely, it's her strength and her speed," Woods said. "She has above-average strength and speed. She's very explosive, and I attribute that to her acrobatic training and her gymnastics background. I really do expect her to bring a state championship home to Pasco High School and break the state record."
Dancing and gymnastics were her first loves when she first picked up a pole last year. Now, she admits the pole vault has swept her off her feet.
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