By David Fong
Regional Sports Content Manager
CASSTOWN — As the sun hung high above the cornfields, a trickle of cars — many of them with poles ranging from 12 to 15 feet long sticking out of the windows — started pulling into a grassy space inside the Miami East High School football stadium.
From five different counties — Miami, Darke, Shelby, Auglaize and Champaign — they arrived, seeking knowledge and experience … and they were met by two men who were able to provide both.
“Roger and Herb are great,” said Maria Heckman, a senior-to-be at Minster High School who placed third in the pole vault at the Division III state track and field championships last spring. “They know everything there is to know about pole vaulting.”
More than a decade ago, Roger Bowen, the former track and field coach at Miami East High School, and Herb Hartman, the former track coach at Troy High School, had a vision. They wanted to provide a full-service pole vaulting academy for area high school vaulters.
They began small, working with Miami County vaulters during the spring and summer months. Within the past five years, however, they have expanded their coaching services, making them available to vaulters from all over the region. When the new Miami East High School was built four years ago, Bowen and Hartman added an indoor pole vault pit in the former high school’s gymnasium, allowing vaulters to train year-round.
“The only way you get better is through repitition,” said Hartman, who continues to work an assistant with the Troy track and field program. “That’s what we provide — the opportunity for kids who want to put in the work to get better.”
Local vaulters have taken advantage of that opportunity. Some vaulters are willing to drive an hour, one way, to work with Bowen and Hartman. At last fall’s Division III regional competition in Troy, all four of the girls vaulters who qualified for state — Heckman, Marion Local’s Olivia Hemmelgarn, Ansonia’s Samantha Shook and Fort Loramie’s Andrea Meyer — work with Bowen and Hartman during the offseason.
“The nice thing is we all share our knowledge; we are all here to get better,” said Fort Loramie vaulting coach Rick Scheer, who has helped bring vaulters north of Miami County to train with Bowen and Hartman. “Everyone is here to help everyone get better.”
And get better they have. Heckman said she started coming to work with Bowen and Hartman two years ago and has seen her vault improve by more than 2 feet. In the meantime, she’s become one of the top vaulters in the state and a legitimate Division I college prospect.
Combined, Hartman and Bowen have been coaching track and field for more than a century. Hartman is a hall of fame coach with more than 50 years experience at the high school level, while Bowen — in addition to working with athletes at the high school level — also has coached at the collegiate level, with stops at Kansas, the University of Nevada and The Ohio State University.
“If you want to learn how to be a pole vaulter, those are the two guys you want to work with,” said Miami East athletic director Scott Donaldson. “You won’t find two better coaches. You also won’t find two better people. Those two guys take care of the kids they work with.”
Bowen and Hartman charge a nominal fee for vaulters — but don’t pocket a cent. All of the money collected is put back into the program, purchasing new equipment and refurbishing old equipment.
“We do it for the love of the event,” Bowen siad. “We just wanted to make sure the kids who wanted good coaching were able to get good coaching without having to drive to Columbus and paying $50 per hour.”
The two have produced a multitude of state qualifiers and placers, including Troy Christian High School graduate Mackenzie Wills, who won a Division III state championship and still holds the Division III girls state record with a vault of 13-0 in 2008.
Vaulters at smaller schools throughout the region, in particular, have benefitted from the expertise the two provide.
“Vaulters started coming to us becuase they got tired of getting beat,” Hartman said with a grin. “I think at the smaller schools, in particular, they don’t always have enough coaching. A lot of the Division II and Division III schools don’t have vaulting coaches. It takes years to learn how to coach this event. You go to a lot of clinics … it takes about four years to learn how to properly coach and event like this. A lot of smaller schools aren’t able to do that.”
And so vaulters have come from all over the region in hopes of learning and getting better.
“I’ve really improved since I’ve started coming here,” said Meyer, who qualified for state last season and looks to be a front-runner to get on the podium this year. “It’s something you have to down all year if you want to get better.”