By BRADEN LAYER
---- — Among the long, rolling fields of south central Illinois' corn and soybean farms lies a hidden crop of newly-tapped talent. Flying well under the radar, the area has quietly gone about producing some of the most gifted athletes in the state.
Already boasting a storied history of basketball and baseball greats, these athletes aren't carving up the hardwood or unloading homers on the diamond.
For all the big-time ballers the Effingham area has produced, a new group has emerged. Make some room for the pole vaulters.
Blink twice, pinch yourself, do whatever needs to be done to check and make sure your eyes aren't playing any tricks. Area pole vaulters are —and have been for quite some time —solidifying the Effingham area as a hotbed of talent.
"It's really taken off," Newton boys track coach Todd Short said. "I think it's due to the thrill and excitement of it. You've definitely got to be dedicated, it's not for everybody."
Yes, the vaulters, those that hurl themselves toward the mat and lift impossibly high off the ground, only to squeeze over the bar by nothing more than the hairs on their legs to come crashing back to Earth. The unheralded daredevils of track and field are getting some love because, well, they deserve it.
You'd have to travel back to 2003, a full decade ago, for at least one area pole vaulter not to have qualified for the boys state finals. When Eric Mammoser placed seventh in Class 1A with a 13-foot, 9-inch jump back in 2004, he likely didn't realize he'd just kicked off a 10-year stretch with at least one area competitor reaching the final day of the season.
Since an Effingham area athlete has made the boys finals 15 separate time.
Granted, the Mammoser family has had a large say in that. Of those 15 entries, eight are due to one of three Mammoser vaulters. Eric, the oldest, had a personal best of 15-3 in 2006 for a second-place finish.
Middle brother Scott vaulted 15-6 in 2009 for a state title and younger brother Mitch one-upped them all, winning back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012. Scott went on to vault for Eastern Illinois, and Mitch is now a member of the Illini track and field team.
"I think we just got real lucky with the Mammoser family," Short said of Newton's good fortune in the event. "They started from scratch and each kid got better as they went along."
This year, it was Brandon Tolliver-Goode's turn to carry the Eagles in Charleston at the state meet. He successfully cleared 14 feet to finish fourth, one place better than his showing a year ago. Not surprisingly, he first took an interest in the event after watching the success the Mammosers enjoyed before him.
"Brandon got into it because of them, that got his interest piqued," Short said. "It's an exciting event to watch. A kid going up in the air 15 feet, that's impressive. It looks like 30 feet when you're up at the top of the pole."
While Newton's boys have certainly had a strangle at, or near, the top of the pole vaulting realm, other area athletes have begun to pick up the slack. Effingham's Clark Williamson was a finalist this spring in Class 2A, completing a personal record of 13-9 in the prelims. Though he didn't place in Saturday's finals, it marked the first time a Heart vaulter reached the last day of competition in the 10-year stretch.
Last season, on top of Mitch's state title and Goode's fifth-place showing, Alex McWhorter of Teutopolis made some waves by finishing sixth in Class 1A.
His clearance of 13-9 marked a jump of nine places from the previous season, when he managed a 13-foot jump to land in 15th. Short said that all schools seem to be churning out higher vaults and deeper rosters, and that he has even had junior high students itching to give it a try.
"Effingham's numbers are up, and T-town's numbers are up," Short said. "I've got eighth-grade kids just begging to get into the pole vault."
On the girls side, an Effingham area state qualifier has made it to the finals five times in the last five years. This year, Sara Wortman of St. Anthony and Teutopolis' Rachel Westendorf delivered top-ten vaults. Wortman placed ninth and Westendorf 10th in Class 1A.
In 2012, Effingham's Chelsea Bingham finished fifth in Class 2A. Her jump of 11-3 was good enough to earn a spot on the Lady Cardinals track and field squad at the University of Louisville.
Westendorf also made an appearance in the finals in 2012, placing 12th (9-09).
"The girls part has really picked up as well," Short said. "There have been some great local girl (vaulters) making it to the state finals, some young girls that have potential."
Not surprisingly, a Newton athlete started the recent trend. After a rare year in 2011 when nobody made the finals, Megan Jansen, then just a freshman, finished 10th for the Lady Eagles by vaulting 9-09.
With 15 appearances in the boys finals since 2003, and five on the girls side since 2010, the Effingham area has become fertile ground for some of the state's best vaulters.
The secret's out.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org