Cass' Smith vaults to top of 5A to bring home state title

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As a pole vaulter, Cass junior Stephen Smith is adept at overcoming obstacles.

Most often, the obstacles take the form of a bar resting about 14 feet off the ground. But this year, Smith has faced other challenges in his pursuit of glory.

He overcame every single one of them to earn the 5A state title Thursday at Carrollton, defeating Carrollton High's Joe Street in a jump off after both cleared 14 feet.

"Honestly, words can't describe it," Smith said of winning a state championship. "It's just amazing."

What's even more amazing is the way Smith navigated the possible stumbling blocks he encountered on his way to the top. The first issue arose last year and carried over into this season.

Smith had no way of practicing at the high school track, unless you count working on his approach. Luckily, he managed to work three times a week at the Georgia Pole Vault Club in Cartersville to compensate.

"We didn't have a pole vault pit at our school this year," Cass track and field coach Danny Fairbanks said. "It had blown away last year. They tried to get it fixed, but they never did get it fixed. Most of Stephen's work was without a pole vault pit.

"Do want to give props to the Georgia Pole Vault group, because he would go there Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday to work. When he would come to the school, he would just have his pole and be running up and down the track. ... Even through that, Stephen persevered and pushed through. It was just phenomenal to see him get it done."

Smith said the pit finally got set up in the run up to state. However, an injury suffered at the Region 7-AAAAA meet meant he only practiced three days at the high school pit.

In his final jump at regionals, Smith felt a tweak in his hamstring. It put a damper on his region championship, but the overall result left him feeling as good about his state title chances as he ever had.

Having only pursued pole vaulting in earnest since his sophomore year, Smith had seen his personal records continue to be shattered. But edging out Street at the region competition gave him a huge confidence boost.

"My PR was 8-6 when I started, and by the end of the year it was 12-6," Smith said of his sophomore campaign. "I figured I might as well stick with it, and I could be pretty good at it. I trained really hard [during] summer and indoor season this year and moved up to 14-8. In region when I beat Joe for the first time in outdoor, I figured I might have a shot at winning state."

The only question seemed to be whether his hamstring would cooperate.

Smith spent most of the time between the region championship and the sectional meet recuperating. He did, though, feel the need to at least get some work in — although he made sure not to over do it.

"I didn't really practice that week," Smith said. "I practiced two days before sectionals — just short stuff to make sure that I'm confident going into it.

"At sectionals, I came in at a super low height that I knew I could qualify for state. I  just jumped one bar, and then I went up to the official and told him I was done."

Despite finishing third at sectionals behind Street, who cleared 15 feet at the event, and Carrollton's Drew Taylor, Smith knew he would be in the hunt for a state championship this week.

Even still, he struggled to overcome the shock — a rare failure in clearing a hurdle — when Street knocked off the bar in his final attempt to beat out Smith.

"Tommy Duke from Woodland, he ran over and congratulated me," Smith said of his competitor and friend, who finished fourth. "I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it."

His coach had no trouble coming to grips with the result. Fairbanks said he's seen Smith grow from a freshman who was "tinkering" with the sport into a junior who has ascended to the high school pinnacle.

"It's one of those technical-type sports that you really have to work at it throughout the year to master," Fairbanks said of pole vaulting. "Stephen, he has mastered it, and he knows how to get it done. When he goes towards that pole vault pit, he attacks it. It's really fun to watch."

With another year of pole vaulting under his belt, Smith would seem destined for an even more successful senior season. He'll have plenty of competition in his pursuit for back-to-back state titles, as each of the top four finishers from this year's meet will return to high school next fall.

That being said, Smith has other barriers he'd like to cross between now and then. His ambitions are lofty, but given his ability to overcome the challenges he faced this season, it's hard to bet against him.

"Height goal would be five meters, which is 16-4 and some change, that's a goal that could get me into a good college," Smith said. "That's a goal that I'm trying to reach by the end of my senior year. I would also like to break the 5A state meet record of 16-1, I believe, set by Tray Oates from Allatoona. Those are my two goals for next year really, and, of course, to compete and win state again."