The Southern Maryland Athletic Conference has dropped pole vaulting, a sport that brought much individual and team acclaim to the league in recent years.

The decision was the result of increased safety measures in Maryland and across the country.

Effective with this school year, the National Federation of State High School Associations for Track and Field required mat sizes for pole vault pits be at least 19 feet 8 inches wide and 20 feet 2 inches deep. The previous minimum dimensions were 16 feet 1/2 inch wide and 13 feet deep.

The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, acknowledging the cost of such an increase for every school, then ruled that pole vault points will not count toward team competitions. The event will be offered as an individual sport in regional and state meets.

But because the SMAC will not have equipment that meets the new standards, pole vault will no longer be a league event.

"I would like to tell you it was all based on safety, but that would probably be a stretch," said Calvert County Supervisor of Athletics Brian Stevens, who estimated the cost of upgrading the mats at the three Calvert County High Schools would have been more than $30,000. "Everybody knew that it would be very expensive, so that was in the back of everyone's mind.

"But the primary factor was the issue of keeping the kids safe. Pole vaulting is a very dangerous sport, and there is statistical data to prove that."

In June, the Physician and Sportsmedicine Journal pointed to a study that cited the deaths of three pole vaulters nationwide in a two-month span to highlight the sport's dangers. The article estimated one death per year was related to the sport.

Southern Maryland pole vaulters will be able to compete as individuals at meets that offer a regulation-size mat. The Prince George's County Sports and Learning Complex has regulation mats, but it has little available practice time. Athletes are not permitted to vault during after-school workouts at SMAC schools, instead focusing solely on ground drills.

In addition to the hardship placed on athletes who still wish to compete, the loss of the pole vault event will be a blow to the SMAC's team totals at the regional and state levels. Last indoor season, for example, SMAC athletes captured three individual state titles with victories by Lackey's Kris Greenwell (2A/1A), Leonardtown's Ryan Gore (3A/2A) and Patuxent's Nathan Dixon (4A/3A), all of which contributed to team scores.

"For as long as I've been coaching in SMAC, and this is starting my 16th year, I can remember as least one individual in SMAC being in the top six [to score] at the state meet and most of the time we've had multiple athletes in the top six," said Patuxent Coach Valerie Harrington. "There are many, many teams in SMAC who have scored quite a few points from pole vault, and when you get to a state meet, sometimes it only takes a few points here or there. SMAC has always been very strong in the pole vault, so this will have a big impact on our league."

Patuxent's Nathan Dixon was among the SMAC's three state title winners in the indoor pole vault last year.