Westfield senior pole vaulter Kathryn Pettine hopes to be the latest of Coach Kevin McGorty's disciples to win a Virginia AAA championship and set a meet record.
In last year's state meet, Pettine was involved in a two-way jump-off with another McGorty protege, Centreville senior Alicia LaRoche, who ultimately cleared 11 feet 3 inches to take the title. LaRoche's record vault eclipsed the mark set by her older sister Charlotte, who won two state titles for Centreville under McGorty, and Pettine enters Friday's state meet at George Mason University with that legacy in mind.
"[McGorty] is the best coach in the area, and I have confidence in everything he tells me," Pettine said. "The thing with jumping with Alicia at every meet last year was that if it ended up being her who won, it would make me feel better because I knew it was someone who had trained just as hard as me."
Pettine, who broke Charlotte LaRoche's record of 10-9 by an inch to win the Northern Region championship, has been tinkering with her run, trying to improve her acceleration to give her more power on her take-off. As a former gymnast, her strength is evident when she's on the pole, but a better run would allow her to use a bigger pole, which in turn would propel her higher.
"With the gymnastics background, I get inverted on the pole really well," said Pettine, a four-year state qualifier whose personal record is 11-1. "I have a good swing, but it all starts on the ground."
Pettine's two rivals at Friday's meet are the only other Virginia girls to break 11 feet this season: Hickory's Jessica Clendenning (11-0) and Prince George's Rhian Jenks, who has cleared 11-7 and won the Central Region championship with a state-best 12-0. Pettine set her personal high in winning the Concorde District two weeks ago, but McGorty said she is capable of vaulting at least six more inches.
"In pole vaulting, you basically want a gymnast who can sprint, and she came to us as a great gymnast," McGorty said. "She's extremely dedicated and has been working hard now for four years, and with the technical changes, I think a much bigger improvement is in store."
McGorty, an eight-year U.S. national team decathlete, also coaches Westfield junior David Lewis, who has one of the state's top five vaults this season at 13-9 and was third (13-0) in the Northern Region meet behind Madison's Justin Loda (14-0) and Robinson's Nathaneal Rhodes (13-0).
Because McGorty coaches athletes from rival schools, he stays away from an us-against-them mentality.
"I tell the kids, I'll help anyone, but it's up to them to be competitors," said McGorty, who also coached former Centreville state champion David Sullivan. "Last year when Alicia was around, she and Kathryn were training partners, but they were very competitive, and everyone benefits from that."
Without that close competition this year, Pettine has had to rely on her own drive, as well as the determination to be a college pole-vaulter. With a 3.8 grade point average, she is looking at Brown and Yale, but is also considering joining Sullivan and Alicia LaRoche at the University of Virginia.
First, however, she hopes to join them in the state record books.