In the year of the vault, Morris has lofty goals

Arkansas senior Sandi Morris is the collegiate outdoor record-holder in the pole vault with a PR of 15 feet, 5 3/4 inches. (Photo courtesy of Robert Black).

EUGENE, Ore. – While many events at the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field are wide open, the women’s pole vault can be reduced to a two-horse race between Sandi Morris of Arkansas and Demi Payne of Stephen F. Austin.

It’s unfortunate that one of them will have a long face at the conclusion of today’s competition.

“I really just think it’s going to depend on who has the best day,’’ Morris said. “Both of us are very capable of jumping in the high 15’s. We could go down in history if we both jump high. It’d be crazy if comes down to a jump-off at the NCAAs. Of course, I’d like to win nationals again to say I’m a two-time national champion.’’

Morris won the NCAA Indoor title in March, although it was Payne who had vaulted higher earlier in the season. Either way, the women’s pole vault in 2015 is defined by Payne and Morris. Payne set the collegiate indoor record with a mark of 15 feet, 7 inches (4.75 meters) while Morris has the NCAA outdoor record at 15-5 ¾ (4.72m). Payne’s outdoor best is 15-5 ½ (4.71m). The two are nearly nine inches clear of the next-highest vaulter.

“It’s definitely different than anything I’ve experienced before. We’re both so far ahead of the field,’’ Morris said. “Pretty much one of us is going to win it. It’s exciting. I’m just looking forward to getting out there and jumping in front of the fans (in TrackTown USA). It’s a great place to jump. Everybody knows track and field. I can’t think of any better place to end my college career than Eugene.’’

In the same vein, she also can’t think of a better place in which to start her professional career. Shortly after the NCAA meet, Morris will sign a pro contract and return to Hayward Field for the USA Outdoor Championships, June 25-28.

“I’d like to make my first Worlds team,’’ she said. “Last year I got second at outdoor USA’s, but it was an off-year. I think if I go out at USA’s and put up a decent bar, I’ll get in the top two. I’m trying to stay consistent and strong. I have high hopes for making Worlds.’’

That confidence is well-grounded. The current world top-20 list includes six Americans. After Jenn Suhr’s world- and U.S.-leading mark of 15-9 ¼, Morris is tied for third at 15-5 ¾ and Payne is fifth at 15-5 ½, followed by Mary Saxer (15-1 ¾), Melinda Withrow (15-1) and April Steiner Bennett (14-11).

That’s getting ahead of things a bit, however.

Besides defending her NCAA outdoor title in the pole vault, Arkansas senior Sandi Morris hopes to earn a  spot on Team USA at the USA Outdoor Championships later this month at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Robert Black)

Besides defending her NCAA outdoor title in the pole vault, Arkansas senior Sandi Morris hopes to earn a spot on Team USA at the USA Outdoor Championships later this month at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of Robert Black)

Unlike Payne, Morris has a bigger picture to consider at the NCAA meet. The Razorbacks are prime contenders for the women’s team title, and they are counting on big points in the pole vault from Morris and her teammates – Desiree Freier (14-3 ¼) and Ariel Voskamp (14-2 ¾) – both of whom earned trips to Eugene at the regional qualifying meet.

So, the pressure is on Morris in her individual event as well as her teammates as they try to bring a national title back to Arkansas in what is predicted to be one of the tightest races in history. The final NCAA Track & Field News form chart has the top seven teams separated by eight points – USC (48), Oregon (47), Arkansas (46), Texas A&M (46), Florida (45), Texas (44) and Georgia (40).

Arkansas won the NCAA Indoor women’s team title in March, the first women’s team title in any sport in Arkansas school history. That meant a great deal to Morris and her teammates.

“Oh, gosh, it’s incredible to be on a team that’s capable of this,’’ Morris said. “I feel like we have the depth and we have the drive. If we do what we did in indoors, we’ll have a good chance. It’d be the icing on the cake. Outdoors is a bigger deal to track and field people. It’s a whole other ballgame to qualify and get there. We have nothing to lose.’’

Morris’ career has been on the ascent ever since she transferred to Arkansas after two years at North Carolina. That’s no coincidence. Morris credits the strict yet nurturing work of jumps coach Bryan Compton with her improvement in Fayetteville.

Following the NCAA meet, she will remain in Fayetteville and continue working under Compton as a fledgling professional.

“It ain’t broke, so don’t fix it,’’ she said.

Asked what she likes of Compton’s coaching style, Morris said, “I really like his intensity. He has brought out my confidence when it comes to competing. He’s made me a lot more confident. I don’t get intimidated anymore. He runs a very tight ship. He really cares about his athletes. He works very hard and he tweaks things for each individual athlete to assure they reach their peak.’’

Just days before the meet starts at Hayward Field, Morris said she feels she is at her peak after taking the week off following regionals.

“Physically, I feel really good,” she said. “I feel I’m peaking at the right moment. The main difference in the pole vault … is being prepared for wind and weather. It’s always difficult to transition from indoor to outdoor. It’s a different experience when you’re outdoors. I’m ready to put up some big bars at NCAAs.’’

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

USC sprinters on a mission

This Kangaroo hops into steeplechase elite

Taking a turn for the better

Dendy keeps Gator tradition alive

Scaling new heights

Big aspirations for Texas A&M’s Little

Finding his sweet spot

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.