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Value vaulting

Vlad Popusoi has destroyed pole-vaulting records at Greenfield High School this season.

The junior came into the season primed to break the school record, which stood at 12 feet, 7 inches since Seth Mansur cleared that height in 2003. As a sophomore, Popusoi’s best jump of the year was 12-6, so everyone knew it was only a matter of time. All told, it took no time at all. Popusoi vaulted to 12-9 in the first meet of the season to claim the record all for himself.

But Popusoi was far from done there. Throughout the season he has seen his jumps increase. He blew through the 13-foot heights, and found himself having cleared 14 feet at the All-State meet 10 days ago, giving him the title of the state’s best pole vaulter. He moved on to the New England meet this past weekend and increased his school record to 14 feet, 3 inches, which was good enough for sixth in New England. Next season will likely see him move into the 15-foot neighborhood, which will put him in the discussion for the New England crown.

This all comes as a far cry from where Popusoi and the rest of the Green Wave pole vaulters were five years ago. At that time, the Green Wave did not have pole vaulting. The reason is because shortly after Mansur graduated in 2003, the size of high-school pole-vault mats was changed, making Greenfield’s illegal. New mats cost close to $20,000, which the previous administration decided was too much.

After a brief Greenfield hiatus minus the event (which meant the team forfeited nine points every time it competed against a team with pole vaulters), Green Wave coach Stu Elliott was approached by a small group of athletes interested in learning to pole vault. Elliott, who was a pole vaulter at Northfield Mount Hermon School, decided to try and make it work, phoning Pioneer Valley Regional School coach Jim Bell and athletic director Gina Johnson. Bell — peerless locally as a pole-vault aficionado — and Johnson both welcomed the idea of letting Greenfield show up in the evening to use their equipment, so about three days a week, after Elliott was done coaching the rest of the track team, he and his pole-vaulting students strapped poles to the roofs of their cars and drove to Northfield. That’s dedication not only from the athletes, but also by the coach who gave up plenty of his own time to make the event a reality at the school.

“We had interested kids and I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to learn,” Elliott said. “Jim and Gina allowed us to use their mats and we couldn’t have done it without their help.”

The hard work did not go unnoticed. According to Elliott, when Susan Hollins became the new superintendent in Greenfield, she was very supportive of the program and both she and athletic director Mike Kuchieski decided it was important to bring pole-vaulting back to the school. As luck would have it, Hampshire Regional High School had a surplus of mats and Hollins took advantage of the opportunity to purchase new mats at about a quarter of the cost. So, four years ago, Greenfield got its very own mats on the road to re-establishing the program.

“The superintendent understood that if we were to have a track team, we need to have all the events,” Elliott said. “She was very supportive.”

There was one final problem to tackle. For those that have never seen it, pole vaulters run up toward a pit and plant their pole into a vaulting box, which is what holds the pole in place as the athlete pushes himself skyward and over the bar. For years, every school had a vaulting box that was made out of wood, which are now outdated, and most now have a box set in concrete. The reason is because the wood box could shift on vaulters, and while it’s not so much a safety issue, it can take away height on a vault. According to Elliott, that meant that the box had to be constantly inspected and maintained. Over the years, that responsibility fell on the shoulders of Pete Conway — a bronze statue of whom probably should be erected near the new track that’s coming to GHS, due to all his years around the sport at the school. Knowing that most schools now have the box set in concrete, Kuchieski decided it was time for his own school to make that happen, so he enlisted the help of the Greenfield DPW, which Elliott praised for its hard work and dedication to making it happen. Not only did the DPW repave the runway for both the pole vault and the long jump when they had some leftover asphalt from a sidewalk project, they also learned how to properly install a vault box set in concrete.

“The DPW guys took the box and studied up on the whole process of how to install it,” Elliott said. “They brought it back and set it in. They really took it on as a personal project. Mike (Kuchieski) got in touch with them, and the DPW guys made it a reality. I was very impressed with the effort that they all put in.”

Greenfield now has its very own pole-vault program, complete with a vault box set in concrete and legal mats. The poles, which are expensive, are rented at a discount from the Patriot Pole Vault Club, as well as borrowed from Bell and Pioneer.

All that has helped create the best male pole vaulter this area has seen in some time. Popusoi was making those trips to Pioneer when he started with the sport as a seventh-grader. Now he’s making headlines on the state and New England level. Looks like the idea, then the work to bring the sport back to the school, was worth it.

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Where does Popusoi stack up on different levels? Ten days ago Popusoi won the All-State meet with a height of 14-0, which begs the question of what the state record is. That was actually set last year by Westford Academy’s Brendan Sullivan at 16 feet.

Another question is about his collegiate prospects. According to Elliott, many Division I colleges only give out scholarship money to athletes excelling in multiple events, not just one. That being said, Popusoi could compete at a Division I school.

I took a look at results from the UMass Invitational, which took place in April and featured 14 men’s teams from Division I through III. Elliott also happened to be there that day. One athlete from Westfield State University cleared 15-9 to win the meet, but Elliott said you don’t normally see a Division III athlete clear that height. The second- and third-place finishers were both from UMass and each cleared 15-3 on the day. Fourth place was 14-3, which means Popusoi would have finished fourth at the meet. If he does continue to progress, Popusoi would be competitive in Division I college meets. At the Atlantic 10 Men’s Championship meet at the end of the season, the winner cleared 15-9. Popusoi would have finished eighth at that meet.

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Finally, I received a great story regarding some of the leaders on the Frontier baseball team from Frontier middle school baseball coach Brian Delaney.

It just goes to show you the important role that student athletes can have off the playing surfaces. Apparently, this past March, Delaney was preparing to evaluate players during tryouts for the middle-school team when he got late word that the second evaluator scheduled to help him could not attend. It just so happened that seniors Ryan Hoar and Peter Watroba were in the indoor batting cage at Frontier when Delaney walked in. Although Hoar and Watroba were done for the day, they found out Delaney needed help and volunteered to stick around and offer their services. They recruited junior Sean Doyle and the three of them became extra assistants during evaluations.

“These varsity players really went above and beyond by helping me out of a significant jam,” Delaney said.

Not only did the three ballplayers help with evaluations, but they also encouraged the young ballplayers and offered instructional advice during the session. First-year coach Chuck Holt also came in to help out with the process, and it was something that has stuck with Delaney.

“No one from the middle-school staff asked them for the extra help,” Delaney said. “This shows the strength of character within the baseball program and in the community for being willing to step in and help.”

And it didn’t end that day. Delaney said that throughout the season the varsity players have spoken with some of the middle-school players, even if it was just while passing through the halls. To a middle-school student, that’s a kind gesture, and something that the older ballplayers should be commended for.

“The varsity guys found time for the little guys and now I’ve got student athletes, 13, 14 years old, chomping at the bit,” Delaney said. “You could have a couple of bad games, or a bad week, and they would see one of the varsity guys, and they would ask them how they did. If one of the young players said, ‘Oh, I booted a ball,’ or ‘I had a bad game,’ the varsity guys might tell them to forget about it or tell them to shake it off and get them next game. Just that little bit of advice made a big difference. They went above and beyond their responsibilities as a student athlete, and you don’t often see that. It’s a nice cycle that we want to cultivate here at Frontier.”

Now that’s a role model.

Jason Butynski is a Greenfield native and Recorder sportswriter. His email address is jbutynski@recorder.com.

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