2020 High School Girls MVP — Leah Pasqualetti

An outdoor record 14-8¼ helped Leah Pasqualetti to claim top yearly honors. (JOHN NEPOLITAN)

HER 2020 SEASON began with promise and a lofty goal. Yet the goal soon shifted and lifted Leah Pasqualetti (Orchard Park, New York) to the highest-ever outdoor vault by a high school girl, 14-8¼. That was just three-quarters of an inch shy of the absolute HSR set indoors by Washingtonian Chloe Cunliffe last year and helped earn her selection as our top performer of the year (see sidebar).

Not many high schoolers got to test their limits anywhere near fully in this mostly erased pandemic season. Pasqualetti beat the odds with determination, traveling across the country with 7 poles in late June to Sun City, California, and the Stars and Stripes Big Red Barn meet where she reached her apex. With no misses over 5 heights en route and with Paige Sommers—to that point the seasonal leader at 14-6—making the comp anything but an exhibition.

Pasqualetti, now a Kent State frosh whose aspirations remain appropriately altitudinal, has been a vaulter since the seventh grade when, she says she “ended up doing high school track with my sister because they needed pole vaulters sort of, and they were looking for people with a gymnastics background.” That background on the balance beam, rings and bars Pasqualetti had, having taken up gymnastics as a third-grader.

“I liked it,” Pasqualetti says. “I wasn’t super good at it, but I would say it just helped to kind of build the air-awareness skills or, you know, a little bit of bodystrength. And I would say that helped build the foundation for any track events that I was thinking of doing in the future.” Not that track or field was anywhere on her radar at that age.

Late in her eighth-grade season Pasqualetti found her way to the Warsaw Pole Vault Club and coach Mike Auble, her mentor until this autumn’s passing of the baton to Kent coach Bill Lawson. “That’s where we started getting some real coaching and putting things together,” she says.

The Pasqualetti/Auble project procured steady progress. To 12-10 as a soph and 13-3 during her junior indoor season of ’19. Sound stuff, though few observing from afar would have envisioned the 5-foot-2 Pasqualetti taking credible shots at 15-0 as she did in California after her PR vault.

Pasqualetti explains she began ’20 with a mind to raise her best by a foot. “Originally our goal for last indoor season,” she says, “was to break the New York State indoor record,” 14-2 by Mary Saxer in ’05. “So to do that, we would need a 14-3 jump.”

Pasqualetti soared rapidly toward her target, PRing at 14-0 the weekend before she got her 14-3. “Once we cleared that,” she says matter-of-factly in her soft voice, “I think that’s where we expanded our goals for the outdoor season to be a little bit bigger than just a New York state record and set our sights on the national record.”

Then the coronavirus hit the U.S., and New York with the fiercest initial force. Life tilted on its axis for one and all. Athletically, though, Pasqualetti and Auble kept their cool.

She admits, “As strange as it sounds, it really came across as a blessing to not have competitions lined up right away in the start of our outdoor season, because it allowed us to really break down the vault more than we would have been able to if we had to compete every weekend.

“So we were able to focus on the minute details in drilling and going from shorter approaches and fixing any little technique work that really needed to be fixed in order to reach the next level. With online schooling, it ended up being where I could spend more time practicing with Mike and working out weightlifting in the gym and things like that. So it was kind of a formula for success more than it seems to be.”

Pasqualetti recalls breakthroughs during her nearly 4-month competition hiatus. “There were a couple moments where I was like, ‘Wow! That’s something I’ve been working on for a year or so and finally it’s coming to fruition.’ It would be things like my run. We moved it back to 8 lefts instead of 7 lefts so we had a little more rhythm and were able to bring a little more of my speed onto the runway, which was something that I struggled with for so long.

“That was kind of a breakthrough that really set off me being able to get on bigger poles, gripping higher. I know that doesn’t sound like a very technical aspect, but I think having a more consistent run gave me more confidence to focus on in-air technique on bigger sticks.”

Vaulting, however, is a long, rapidly unfurled chain of complicated movements, and nailing it all together can’t be expected to flow like water after an advance in one aspect. Pasqualetti says, “One thing that I did struggle with with a faster run, was getting my hands up faster to kind of match the speed. And if I had a bad plant then the rest of the jump was not as strong. So we definitely worked a lot on getting my hands up quicker and being able to execute my form from a short approach back to [an approach] with a longer run behind it.”

Competition prospects remained near nonexistent for months, though, and Auble even obtained certification as a USATF official with the thought of holding some “backyard meets.” Then two weeks out from the Sun City affair came the call from that competition’s Vaulter Club organizers.

Pasqualetti says, “It was a little stressful at first because I was like, ‘Oh my goodness’—we weren’t expecting it. We weren’t really in competition phase yet so we had to really kind of flash forward a lot to get into competition mindsets and iron out the details that come with that. So, yeah, those two weeks leading up to the meet were very intense, but fun. Like, ‘Well, this is gonna be a fun challenge.’

“Then thinking of the prospect of meeting Paige and getting to jump with her, that was super exciting and very motivational. I think that’s what helped kind of set forth the extra last push to getting geared up.”

Nerve-straining yet fun, the results of the pairing speak for themselves, and in the 3 weeks after her triumph in Sun City Pasqualetti vaulted well in 3 more meets in 3 states, the last a 14-1¼ (4.30) tie with collegiate senior Olivia Gruver behind pros Sandi Morris, Katie Nageotte and Megan Clark in Piedmont, South Carolina.

Now on campus at Kent State and loving it, Pasqualetti declares, “I would say our primary motivation for this season is to qualify for the Olympic Trials. That does end up being the high goal where if we clear 4.60 or about 15-1, it gives us an automatic seeding spot. So that’s definitely something me and coach Lawson have in mind and we’re tailoring our training towards.”

Lawson’s take? Oh, Just a little bullish. “We’re extremely fortunate,” says the coach now in his 16th season as the Kent State head. “I mean, I know Leah could have gone anywhere she wanted to in this country, to any university, I’m sure everybody would have loved [having her]. If they actually could see how she’s just excelling right now, she’s almost like a professional already as a true freshman. My gosh, she’s been here not even hardly two months and she’s fitting right in and just leading all the time by example. I don’t know if I’ve really ever had anybody like her in my 40 years [of coaching].”

As for physical attributes, Lawson says Pasqualetti “has really good foot speed. Mike [Auble] did a fantastic job with her working on her pole drop and her plant, her takeoff mechanics. I mean, I think there’s some things once she leaves the ground that we can work on, but I would say overall her footspeed is one of her greatest gifts. If I had to give you a secondary, it’s her strength-ratio to bodyweight. Her strength ratio is just off the charts compared to her body weight, what she has to move in a jump. It’s probably as good as any male athlete that I’ve had. In time we’ll put videos together and probably do some coaching clinic stuff where people see it online, and they’re just going to be wowed by some of the things she can do.”