As with most things in life, it all depends on one’s point of view.
For some, three pole vaulters with Division I scholarship-worthy credentials continuing their careers at a Division III school speaks of a landmark recruiting coup.
For others, the same trio deciding to compete without benefit of an athletic scholarship means they simply found the place where they feel at home and are confident they will succeed.
Either way, there is no disputing the position that Westminster College pole vaulters Marissa Kalsey, Brooke Mancuso and Cassidy Shepherd are in early in the 2014 indoor season – at the top of the D-III national rankings with rock-solid PRs.
Vaulters Share Prep Success, Connection with Future Coach
While representing high schools in divergent areas of three counties in western Pennsylvania, all compiled strong resumes in the pole vault, with their marks among the best in the state from season to season.
A four-time state qualifier in her specialty, Kalsey won the 2012 PIAA Class AA title by equaling her prep best of 12 feet, 6 inches, which was third highest statewide that year. She also was third as a junior and the runner-up as a sophomore at Shippensburg under the tutelage of veteran Waynesburg Central coach Howard Brunell.
While Kalsey was dominating Class AA in the WPIAL with three titles, standing out in Class AAA of District 7 has been no easy task in recent years. The past three AAA state champions have been from District 7 schools, along with a total of 11 PIAA medalists since 2011.
Despite the intense competition, Mancuso was crafting a similar record on the runway at perennial big-school power North Allegheny. A three-time state qualifier, she was a WPIAL medalist all four years, scaling 11-3 as a sophomore and 12-3 for third as a junior behind two state champions. Although she finished fifth in her vault-crazy district as a senior, Mancuso didn’t let that or a lack of sleep because of her prom the night before keep her from winning the PIAA Class AAA title in 2013 at a high school best of 12-6.
A competitive gymnast for most of her life, Shepherd came to the event as a sophomore at Greensburg Salem and quickly adapted to being upside down with the aid of a fiberglass pole. As a sophomore, she scaled 11 feet and later medaled at the WPIAL Class AAA meet. A fractured back from gymnastics cut short her junior season and zapped her strength, but she returned as a senior in 2013 to go 11-9 and qualify for Shippensburg, where she finished ninth, losing out on a medal on misses as her future Westminster teammate Mancuso led a parade of five WPIAL vaulters in the top eight spots.
“It helps a lot because you are not scared to go upside down,” Shepherd said of the correlation between the acrobatics in gymnastics and the pole vault. “(Pole vaulting is) like the same feeling almost. I always loved being upside down doing gymnastics, so this is just as great of a thrill as doing gymnastics. It feels great being upside down.”
In addition to all three trying their hand at gymnastics for at least a few years, the standout student-athletes also attended one of the camps that pole vault coach Bradi Rhoades has hosted at Westminster, the 162-year-old school in New Wilmington in the heart of western PA’s Amish country.
“I just really like his coaching techniques, and I really seemed to excel and improve with him,” Shepherd said of her former camp instructor and current collegiate coach. “I came and I loved the school, and then having Bradi as a coach really was the No. 1 thing because he is just an awesome coach and really helps people out.”
Scholarships Opportunities Fail to Rule Recruiting Process
Thriving in a very technical event throughout high school, Kalsey and her future teammates had the attention of college recruiters. Their vaulting peers were headed to schools in the ACC, Big 10 and SEC, while this group realized early in the process that Westminster and the 10-member Division III Presidents’ Athletic Conference was the right place for them.
“I wasn’t really thinking about the money,” Kalsey said of how she began working through her college options. “I was thinking more about the coach and what would make me better. I knew in the long run, later in life, that’s what I would be satisfied with – the height, how good I end up doing and if I reach my goals. I knew Bradi would do that for me. I didn’t meet a coach like Bradi that cared about me as a person and would do his best to help me succeed.
“I took a few visits. I almost took one farther away, but I kind of knew I didn’t want to go too far. Also I am comfortable in a D-III atmosphere, a smaller school.”
Kalsey noted that her high school coach “told me first about Westminster” but left the decision up to her.
For Mancuso, choosing to follow a non-scholarship path for track and field appears to be a matter of maintaining a student-athlete balance and her love of pole vaulting.
“There is an equal focus on athletics and education,” the biology major said of D-III and Westminster. In going to a D-III, you can’t get (athletic) money, so you know that your heart is truly there.”
“If you’re going D-III, you know your love is for it because you are not getting paid to do it. You’re doing it just for your pure passion.”
Hence, any college contacts that she received after her state title jump last spring fell on deaf ears.
“No, I knew Westminster was where I was comfortable,” Mancuso said about any chance of college second thoughts. “I have a family established here and coming into a group with loving arms that you know is the environment you will succeed in. I didn’t need a situation where you are going into a new family. We had this connection already that was irreplaceable.”
Rhoades noted that once he learned Kalsey and then a year later Mancuso and Shepherd would be under his direction, he realized that the hardest work truly was ahead of him.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling because you know you have the opportunity of a lifetime to work with these very, very talented people,” Rhoades said of his talented recruits. “Really, they are the type of people that have already changed the standard and set the standard for the expectations that we have here.”
Coach Follows ‘People’ Approach
When asked how he was able to attract top vaulting talent, Rhoades gave a simple answer.
“We just tell people the truth,” said Rhoades, who started pole vaulting 22 years ago at the age of 10. “We don’t lie to them. We don’t shoot smoke. We are who we are. We do what we do, and we just take great pride in it."
Rhoades noted that the typical Division III athlete is competing collegiately for an entirely different reason than those in D-I and D-II.
“One of the unique things here is we can’t buy athletes so we get the kids that are passionate about the event, that want to come and be in an atmosphere where they are going to be cared about and respected and hopefully get better,” he said.
According to Rhoades, who is Westminster’s jumps coordinator and also was coached by Brunell, former Westminster standout Mark Saylor started the influx of major-college vaulting talent when he transferred to the New Wilmington school after spending a school-record-setting season at Duquesne University. As a senior at West Middlesex in 2009, Saylor soared a T-PA#1 15-3 and placed fifth on misses at the state meet as the top five all cleared 14-6.
Saylor won three PAC championships in the pole vault at Westminster, helping the Titans also claim three consecutive team titles as a 16-foot vaulter.
“He transferred from (Duquesne), and he loved every minute that he had here,” Rhoades said. “When he sat down with Marissa (during recruiting), he was real honest about his experience and the things he wished he had whenever he wasn’t here, the time I invested in him as a person.
“That’s what I do with these young ladies, I invest in them as people. Everybody I come in contact with I treat them all the same way. It makes me feel great because I take pride in that, and it seems like it is attracting the talent along with the person. I believe in treating them like young ladies and treating the men like young men. Bringing them in and being part of the family. That’s what I think that does it.”
Teammate’s 2013 Success Motivates Coach, Freshman Duo
In her freshman season at the school of nearly 1,600 students, Kalsey became the first two-time All-American in the history of the women’s track program. Her then-PR of 12-11.5 was worth third place in the indoor national meet at Naperville, Ill., while her 13-0.25 vault last May at Slippery Rock propelled her to the outdoor national meet in Wisconsin. Her subsequent fifth-place finish guaranteed her a place in Westminster athletic history.
“It was pretty surprising,” Kalsey said of being a two-time All-American as a freshman. “I really didn’t know what to expect. I kind of no-heighted a lot of meets, and he was still getting used to coaching me and I was getting used to him. I wasn’t really sure how it would turn out, but it turned out a lot better than I expected so I was really happy with that.”
Her coach also noted that the achievement by Kalsey was a tremendous boost for her and his growing pole vault program, which now features a total of 11 men and women.
“That was really big for her personally because she decided to give us a chance,” Rhoades said. “The fortunate thing was she performed very well. She struggled a little bit indoor with injuries with her quad. Whenever she got to the national meet, she showed me the real reason why she is such a competitor. Boy, it was just a great day.
“I think it set the example of these high-end athletes giving us a chance and then they’re getting PRs, they’re competing at the national level and they’re taking cracks at winning the thing. Really, really important … I think that’s one of the reasons you see some other people taking a good hard look and giving us a chance.”
Two who are watching Kalsey closely from close up are her freshman teammates, who have been positively influenced by her performances as they continue to transition to collegiate competition.
“The first time that I saw her jump, I was amazed,” Shepherd said of their meeting at a Westminster vaulting camp in the summer of 2012. “Since that day, she has been my role model who I really look up to! I went to watch a few of their meets and watching Marissa clear the high heights and excel so much gave me so much inspiration.
“I saw how Bradi really was able to help her succeed. Usually freshman year is rough, but with the success that Marissa had gave me confidence! It inspired me to work hard and I want to follow in her footsteps as a freshman. I am lucky to have Marissa not just as my teammate, but my roommate as well. We lift a lot of times together and do a lot, and I watch as she leads.”
Kalsey’s performances as a freshman in the 2013 Division III national meets also are not lost on Mancuso.
“That it is possible to dream big and achieve goals as a freshman,” the North Allegheny graduate said of what Kalsey’s achievements have meant to her. “Marissa demonstrated that age is arbitrary, the only quantifiable measure that truly matters are the heights we achieve.
“She paved the way for our imaginations to soar. She is a crucial part in driving my personal success, and I am able to look to her as a model in many aspects of life from vaulting to character.”
‘Indoor Facility’ A Chore, Source of Pride
Once a week during the winter, Westminster’s vaulters unpack their “indoor facility” for an afternoon of vaulting behind the retractable bleachers in Buzz Ridl Gymnasium. With another competition only days away, Rhoades and the Titan vaulters launch skyward with the sounds of dribbling basketballs nearby.
“That was a factor,” Kalsey said of the indoor facilities available at the other schools she considered. “I was weighing the options. I think it came down to I knew that Bradi would do other things for me, not necessarily get a facility because that’s hard to do. This year he helped me find a nutritionist (and) other little things that are going to help me succeed that I know another coach wouldn’t be that personalized.”
With their practice time about up, the focus for the group turns to their task of breaking down the runway and pit. The end of each indoor practice is a flurry of activity as the vaulters scurry about, dismantling the elevated runway and pit to clear the area for another team to conduct an indoor workout.
“After practice, you saw our kids digging in to tear down (the runway and pit),” said Rhoades, who quickly noted that day’s ‘tear down’ was the team’s second fastest of the season. “You saw how much pride they had in getting it done. They take pride in everything that we do.
“That’s the most important part. Whenever I meet with athletes and whenever our kids get to meet with them and eat with them, we are who we are. I think people appreciate that. I don’t know that they get that everywhere they go.”
‘Rewarding’ Day Puts Former WPIAL Trio Atop Rankings
In one of the marquee meets on their 2014 indoor schedule, the Titan vaulters squared off against Division I and II competitors on Feb. 1 at the Spire Institute near Geneva, Ohio. The Division III trio more than held their own in one of the finest indoor facilities in the nation.
“To be completely honest, I never imagined that the ladies would respond like they did,” Rhoades said of the trio’s performances that at the time ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 7 nationally. “I cannot express to you how proud I was in this moment. While I am so very proud of how high they vaulted, I am much more proud of the level of communication and how well they listened in the moment. It was very rewarding.”
Initial clearances at their opening heights proved to be indications of a landmark day near the shores of Lake Erie. Later, all three Titans successfully cleared the bar at 12-1.5, with Shepherd’s vault being a PR and her teammates still not having a miss on the day.
“I was honestly surprised that all three Westminster vaulters were still in the meet at 12-7.5,” Rhoades said. “The warm-up was really rough, and we were in scramble mode to start the meet, but with each vault the ladies gained confidence and we were able to make adjustments. I believe the reason that we were able to be successful in this situation was that we were all communicating effectively, and we stayed very focused on the technique.”
Kalsey and Mancuso remained tied for the lead with Walsh University’s Stephanie Foster after third-try overs at 12-7.5 as Mancuso PR’d. At 13-1.5, it was Kalsey’s turn to record a lifetime best – and No. 1 mark in Division III – on her initial attempt. In the end, Foster also needed a career best of 13-5.25 to best the D-III trio and climb to No. 2 nationally in the D-II ranks.
As for her current position atop the Division III national charts, Kalsey had to smile.
“It’s a nice feeling,” she said. “I don’t want to feel too comfortable, but it’s a nice feeling to relax a little bit and try to beat my own record.”
In their first meet after becoming the new 1-2 in Division III, Kalsey and Mancuso did not rest on their laurels. At the University of Mount Union on Saturday, the duo dominated a predominately D-III field, with the sophomore clearing 12-9.5 and Mancuso 12-1.5. Both exited the competition after attempting PR heights.
With a handful of meets left on their indoor schedule, Rhoades pointed to the short- and long-term benefits of the trio’s experience at Spire.
“Without question that day will help so much throughout the rest of this year and years to come,” he said. “They showed how you should process and respond to pressure. In particular, I think that weekend will help so much at the national meets. It is impossible to duplicate the atmosphere, but that was real close to what it feels like.”