Every now and then, Sal Loverde, the Riverhead boys winter track coach, gives in to temptation, walks over to his pole vaulters and tells them what he thinks about their event. Typically, he says something like this: “Do you realize you’re completely insane with what you do?”
Loverde isn’t the first to question the sanity of pole vaulters, a fearless breed, to be sure. Pole vaulters are track and field’s daredevils, always trying to fling themselves to greater heights.
Over the years, Riverhead has built a reputation for producing some of the best pole vaulters in Suffolk County. Even so, the Blue Waves almost pulled off a rare feat last Wednesday when they nearly qualified three — count them: one, two, three — pole vaulters for the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Championships that will be held March 2 at Cornell University. Two Riverhead seniors, Dan Normoyle and Jonah Spaeth, will compete in the state meet. Another Riverheader, junior Charles Villa, failed to qualify, but came oh so close.
“I would have been a little more surprised if we sent three up,” Loverde said. “I would not have been shocked, but I would have been a little surprised.”
Normoyle finished first in the state qualifying competition in Holtsville, clearing a personal-best height of 14 feet. His previous best was 13-4. Spaeth was second at 13-9.
Villa turned in a personal-best height of 13-6, which satisfied the state qualifying standard, but he needed to take third place in order to make it upstate. That spot, however, was taken by Smithtown West senior Karl Nilsen, who recorded 13-9 on his final vault.
It will be the first appearance in the state meet for both Normoyle and Spaeth.
Spaeth also competed in the Millrose Games, which were held Saturday at The Armory in New York City. He tied for third place in the high school competition along with Justin Farrenkopf of Ellenville and James Steck of Harrison. All three reached 13-9 1/4.
“That’s a very respectable day,” said Loverde.
Riverhead has been strong in the pole vault for at least 15 years, said Loverde. “We went from strong to off the charts,” he said.
Doc Andresen, the team’s longtime pole vault coach, is a big reason for that success.
“He’s a pole vault guru, and he does a phenomenal job,” Loverde said. “Year in, year out, we have competitive kids.”
Loverde said Riverhead introduces middle school athletes to pole vaulting through clinics, “and away they go. Once they plant and clear that first height, they’re on.”
Pole vaulting has been described as an addictive business, with athletes obsessed over propelling themselves higher and higher.
“If they can plant that bar and get up and never land, they’d be happy,” said Loverde.
Spaeth set the Riverhead indoor record of 14-6 earlier this season. Loverde expects the school’s outdoor record of 14-1 that was set by David Ludlum in the 1990s to be obliterated this spring.
“We have two kids that have been over 14 feet and one kid that is slamming on the door,” said the coach.
Riverhead’s top pole vaulters have some more vaulting to do before the state meet. They will compete in the Long Island Track and Field Invitational at St. Anthony’s High School on Friday and the Eastern States Championships at The Armory on Feb. 28.
Loverde knows only too well that anything can happen when it comes to pole vaulting. Predictions can be a risky business. For example, Riverhead’s pole vaulters failed to clear a height at last year’s state qualifier.
Loverde said, “It’s a very finicky event because there are a lot of things involved from the mental component to the physical component.”