For the University of Akron’s record-setting pole vaulter Shawn Barber, the dog days of the season are over. What he called “the finale” is nearly upon him.
That’s a misnomer of sorts, because the 18-year-old freshman ranked No. 2 in the nation is actually embarking on nearly two months of pressure-packed competition.
Then comes the fun part, a summer calendar that includes meets in Russia, Colombia and perhaps France.
This week’s Mid-American Conference Outdoor Championships, which open today at the Lee R. Jackson Track and Field Complex, will serve as a tune-up, although Barber would never admit that. He’s driven to improve on a fifth-place finish at the NCAA Indoor Championships in March and sees something to be gained from every competition.
When his performance at the Indoor came up during an interview before practice Monday, Barber referenced the words of his elementary school soccer coach in Kingwood, Texas.
“He told me, ‘No game goes to waste. Even if you lose a game, there’s something you can learn from it. You can always build on that and become a better player,’ become a better pole vaulter in this case,” Barber said.
“It wasn’t something I was happy with and something you walk away from proud of.”
Barber has already cleared 18 feet three times this year, twice outdoors. His best was a UA outdoor mark of 18-.08.75 at the Texas Relays on March 29, when he finished second.
“I have a long ways to go before the season’s over and hopefully by the end of the year I’ll be in a place where I don’t have any regrets looking back,” Barber said of his freshman year. “It’s definitely a new experience. It’s kind of a small fish in a big world in college.”
UA track and field coach Dennis Mitchell is handling what some of his sport’s websites call a phenom. Mitchell seems pleased with Barber’s progress.
“I feel like everything’s right where it should be,” Mitchell said. “It’s really going to come down to nationals. They’re all going to start jumping high this weekend and for nationals.”
Barber is gearing up for the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 5-8 in Eugene, Ore. But after the MAC meet, he must worry about qualifying at the NCAA prelims May 23-25 in Greensboro, N.C.
Only the top 12 advance, which would seem easy for Barber. But Mitchell said in 2012 then-Arkansas freshman Andrew Irwin, who won the 2013 NCAA Indoor with a vault of 18-08.25, didn’t make it out of the prelims.
“Because it seems too easy, it isn’t,” Mitchell said. “It’s quite a mental toll. Last year [Irwin], the No. 1 kid in the country who held the U.S. national junior record, didn’t clear a bar.”
Barber seemed well aware of that.
“I just want to make sure I do well enough to make it there,” Barber said of the NCAA Outdoor. “I’ll worry about peaking when I get there.”
Barber finds himself in the midst of a pole vaulting heyday. At the NCAA Indoor, four of the top five finishers were sophomores or freshmen. Mississippi sophomore Sam Kendricks (18-04.50) and Tennessee freshman Jake Blankenship (18-04.50) also finished ahead of Barber (18-00.50).
“This is definitely one of the best years in collegiate pole vaulting in 20 years, if not the best of all time,” Mitchell said. “Everyone’s young. They’re going to be battling each other for the next few years, both in the NCAA and internationally. There was another kid who broke the junior national meet record, that guy’s probably 10th out of the group right now. That’s how good they are. It’s something Shawn will get used to.”
Asked about the collegiate rivalries he’s developing, Barber said, “You kind of jump to the level of competition. Having these great pole vaulters to jump against is going to help me in the long run.”
After the NCAA Outdoor, Barber can think about the World University Games in Kazan, Russia, in July and the IAAF World Championships in Moscow and the Junior Pan Am Games in Medellin, Colombia, in August. He might also go to the Francophone Games in Nice, France, in September.
He looks forward to traveling the world, but Barber seems to be settling in at UA. He said he has made friends with members of the Zips’ soccer team and attended all the home games.
“Sports in college is a little bit different than high school sports,” Barber said. “We’re all one really big team for the University of Akron, so we all do get along. It is a lot of fun with these other athletes.”
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.