Seeking new heights

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Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

Justin Petz frequently slings himself to a peaceful, calming and therapeutic world.

After racing down the runway, after planting and blasting himself into the air like a bottle rocket, the La Pine High junior enters serenity. Time slows. Like his body, his mind temporarily leaves the Earth below. There is silence at the peak of his arc as Petz peers down at the bar he now soars over.

He prays that the bar remains undisturbed as he descends. Petz crashes down on the mat, and, more times than not, victory follows and, as he describes it, “things just go crazy.”

Things have been crazy quite often for Petz over the past few years. Twice a Class 4A pole vault state champion, owner of the fourth-best clearance in OSAA history (a height of 16 feet, 9 inches that ranks 11th nationally, according to DyeStat.com), he has been fulfilling a prophecy of sorts set forth years ago.

The nephew of 1997 La Pine graduate Matt Petz, the current 4A state meet record holder, and the tutee of Greg Likens, a three-time pole vault state winner in the 1980s at Junction City, Justin Petz has long been a pole vault prodigy, well aware how synonymous his family name is with the sport in Oregon — from his grandfather to his uncle (and Matt’s son, Brady, who is in eighth grade) to his older (by 17 hours) brother and teammate Joseph.

Since Justin Petz first picked up a pole in the seventh grade, he has been addicted — committed to reach heights no other vaulter, named Petz or otherwise, has ever reached. And rarely has he disappointed.

“I like to be pushed. Period,” Justin Petz says. “I don’t know how to describe it. If someone’s going higher than me, there’s no other option than to go over it.”

That need to be the best has been the driving force for Petz over the last three-plus years, since his first full track and field season in eighth grade. And since entering high school, he has improved his top mark by more than two feet, up to 16-9, a height that is 2 inches better than his uncle’s 4A state meet record, set in 1997.

“All the records he’s taken — the meet records, the school records — it couldn’t get any better than that,” says Matt Petz. “I couldn’t be more proud of him for all his hard work and what he’s put into it.”

Already with the La Pine program record in the pole vault to his credit, Justin now takes aim at Matt Petz’s mark (although Matt’s 4A record would still stand since La Pine now competes in 3A). And he has a lineage of strong vaulters beside him — his coaches: Likens and, in particular, his Uncle Matt.

“He’s been a great guy, a leader, an inspiration to me,” Justin Petz says of his uncle. “He’s one of those guys that I can always talk to when things aren’t looking too bright. He’s like me. He knows what I’m thinking. He knows what I’m going through right now, so he knows how to communicate with me. And so does Greg. That’s why they’re such great coaches.”

Justin Petz was a baseball player once. If not for one of his baseball coaches offhandedly suggesting that Petz was athletic enough to go out for the track team, who knows how the record books would now read? Because even during that one week in seventh grade when Petz showed up at the facility, Likens saw the potential for greatness. Of course, being a Petz did not hurt Justin’s chances.

“Having known his uncle, having had Matt, he (Justin) had an idea about pole vaulting,” says Likens, who owned the state record for 14 years before seeing Matt Petz, coached by Likens, literally raise the bar. “His sister even did it (pole vaulted) in middle school. I just thought, ‘Hey let’s try it.’ He picked it up really, really quick.

“He was hooked right away.”

Indeed Petz was, despite a lack of initial success. In the first three meets of his first full track and field season, the eighth-grader Petz failed to clear the bar — not for lack of height, Likens notes, but because Petz continued to descend directly onto the bar.

“I hit the bar, I kept knocking it off. I was going over it in practice, but meets, I couldn’t even get over the bar,” Petz remembers. “But it was just so much fun, just getting up, bending the pole … it was like a drug. I couldn’t let go of the pole.”

But he persevered, and he won the 4A pole vault state title as a La Pine High freshman in 2013 and won a second championship last year.

“A lot of it is the kid,” Likens says. “The kid has the drive and the desire to want to improve. Justin is really, really coachable, a really coachable young man. He wants to improve so bad that when you tell him something, he gets it in his mind when he comes to the pole vault and he’s able to kind of do it in his mind first and then do it on the pole. He just wants more information.”

After placing first at the Mountain Valley Conference championships last week (clearing 16-6, 3 inches below his personal best yet half a foot better than the next-best vaulter in the state this season, regardless of classification), Petz is in line to become just the eighth athlete in OSAA history to take home a third boys pole vault state title. No male Oregon athlete has ever completed a four-year sweep.

“It’s harder this year because everyone’s targeting me right now,” Petz concedes. “It’s hard because everyone’s expecting me to go higher. I want to get higher so bad, but I miss that close (competition). Everyone’s jumping, like, 13-6, and then I’ll (start) at 13-6 and I’ll have to go higher. It’s getting to the point where I have to push myself instead of other people pushing me like it used to be.”

Still, Petz and his coaches have a lofty goal of 17-6 set for Thursday’s event at the Class 3A state meet at Hayward Field in Eugene, a mark that Likens says is “well within reach.”

“There’s nobody that can stop him,” Likens says, “except himself and maybe some bad situations.

“It just tells me that he’s not satisfied,” Likens adds. “He knows there’s more to get, and he won’t be satisfied until he gets it.”

The significance of maintaining a tight bond between the Petz name and pole vaulting glory is not lost on Justin. Eighteen years ago this month, his uncle became a three-time state champ and broke a 14-year record, held by Likens, by clearing 16-7. Now, the 17-year-old nephew is on a mission to add another Petz name to the record books, just below that of his uncle.

“It couldn’t get any better than that,” says Matt Petz, whose son, Brady, is a nationally ranked eighth-grade vaulter. “Justin’s definitely started a trend for the Petz family. Hopefully we can keep it rolling.”

Near the end of the pole vault runway, Justin Petz will tunnel his focus toward the pit beneath the bar. He visualizes each step as he approaches the vault box, seeing himself plant the pole and slingshot himself skyward. Soon, he will race toward the box, he will plant and bend his pole, and he will launch over the bar. More often than not, he lands safely on the other side, the bar undisturbed, another victory secured.

“It feels like you just won the lottery, like you just won the jackpot,” he says. “It’s better than that. It’s better than winning money. It’s so much glory in one moment, you can’t even describe it.”

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