Stearns is a vaulting veteran

Senior pole vaulter Monica Stearns has been enhancing her skills since high school.

Lou Raguse

Minnesota’s women’s track and field coach Gary Wilson is sending some experienced athletes and some first-timers to this weekend’s Drake Relays.

Leading the crowd of veteran tracksters is senior pole vaulter Monica Stearns.

This year, Stearns broke the indoor and outdoor school records in the pole vault, and now, she looks to keep her steady improvement going at her fourth Drake Relays competition.

“The Drake is exciting because it’s such a good field,” Stearns said. “The best competition in the country is competing with you.”

Stearns began her vaulting career as a junior in high school and walked onto the Gophers as a freshman.

She became inspired to stick with it when she saw teammate Erica Findlay improve her own vault from 8 feet to 11 feet.

For the next three years, Stearns and Findlay began to swap team records until Findlay graduated last spring.

Then volunteer pole vault coach Caroline White took over this year.

White and Stearns worked closely together in revamping Stearns’ technique – and Wilson said it’s made a difference.

“That relationship is so strong and so positive for Monica; it’s made that much more of a step in a positive direction,” Wilson said. “I can’t say enough about what’s Caroline’s done for our program.”

With White’s help, Stearns broke the Gophers’ outdoor pole vault record at the Texas Southern Relays, and then re-broke it April 10 at Oregon with a vault of 12-10.

Stearns will face a tougher field at Drake, but White said the coaches are more concerned with her improving on her personal bests than worrying about the competition.

“In the pole vault, you’re competing against yourself and you’re standing against others,” White said. “But you can only control what you do.”

Competing in front of 18,000 fans at the Drake Relays was intimidating at first, Stearns said, as she had trouble clearing the bar in her first Drake go-round.

But now she uses the crowd to help pump her up.

“You learn to treat it just like any other meet,” she said.

First-timers

Last season, while standing in pouring rain at the small Northern Iowa Twilight Open, Wilson watched distance runner Harper McConnell win the 5,000-meter run.

“I saw that and said, ‘Whoa, that kid can be good,’ ” Wilson said. “And I told that to her. I said, ‘You know what? If you train and keep your nose clean and do your job, you can be good.’ “

McConnell underwent inspired training during the summer, Wilson said, and had a successful cross country season in the fall.

Now, in her sophomore track season, McConnell is making her first trip to the Drake Relays.

And what does Wilson tell athletes such as McConnell in preparation of competing in their first Drake Relays?

“Hold on to your shorts,” Wilson joked. “But for kids going into a meet like that for the first time, the track somehow seems longer. Once they go through it, they realize it’s not as bad as they expected it to be.”

Other competitors

Wilson said he is also excited to see his relay teams compete at Drake.

“I think we’ve got a good distance relay and a very, very good 4×1600,” Wilson said. “We’ve got a great shot at breaking the school record there.”

Wilson also noted his 4×800-meter relay team of Rachel Schutz, Rachel Kuhn, Mollie Hupp and Candace Borgen, which Wilson said could finish in the top three.

“Those kids are really starting to come around and do a great job,” he said.