EUGENE — Looking back at it now, Corey Sledge conceded that he choked. Plain and simple.
As a Culver junior in 2015 and the defending Class 2A boys pole vault state champion, Sledge recalled being too much in his own head. He was overthinking, isolated from opponents and tight. He cleared 14 feet, 6 inches that day — a full foot lower than the 15-6 mark he had recorded at the district championships the previous week.
Sledge settled for second in the state pole vault that day at Hayward Field, resorting to watching Central Linn senior Kavic Belcastro not only snatch away the state crown but also set the 2A state meet record at 16-1.
Sledge recounted how his disappointment carried over to the preliminaries of the 110-meter hurdles, an event “that I did TERRIBLE in.” He finished ninth and missed out on the finals. “I just didn’t have a good first day whatsoever.”
This past Thursday, the first day of the state meet, was all about redemption for Sledge.
“(Throughout the season) I worked as hard as I possible could,” Sledge said Thursday, “to get faster, stronger, get on bigger poles and get my form down as best as I could.”
That second-place finish was all he needed as motivation, and it was not just Sledge who knew that.
“It was huge. It was everything,” Culver coach Mike Dove said of the influence that runner-up placing had on Sledge’s work ethic. “He was more focused. He knew he had to be faster on the runway, and he had to work on his speed. He spent a lot of time doing that. He was definitely a different vaulter this year.”
From this season’s outset, Sledge seemed like a different vaulter, Dove recalled. His jumps were higher than what he had cleared the previous season. There was little doubt in Dove’s mind that his star vaulter was bound to take back the state title — and do so in record-breaking fashion.
Of course Sledge took aim at his second vault state championship. Yet he wanted more. He committed himself to striking from the record book the name of the vaulter who had defeated him a year earlier.
Sledge entered the final Thursday at 13-61/4, when he was the only vaulter left competing, his opponents all having been eliminated by the time Sledge even began. He conceded that there were some nerves as he stood at the end of the runway. “‘I HAVE to make this,’” Sledge remembered thinking. “All that pressure is on you. After that, it’s just another meet.”
In nine regular-season meets this year, Sledge won six times. Only one athlete had defeated him, and that athlete, soon-to-be four-time state vault champion Justin Petz of 3A La Pine, owner of the fourth-highest vault in Oregon high school history, was in the Hayward Field stands Thursday watching Sledge. It was the Culver vaulter who consistently pushed Petz whenever they faced off in competition — three times this season and 13 times throughout their high school careers. In a way, some of Petz’s record-breaking success can be attributed to Sledge.
“It puts me on the edge,” Petz said of vaulting alongside his Culver counterpart. “It makes me want it more. If there’s no one behind me, it’s all about pushing myself. But Corey always jumped up pretty high and pushed me, made me feel like I can jump higher.”
Sledge cleared 13-6 1/4 on his first attempt, earning him that second state championship in the event. He struggled at 14-6, needing all three attempts to stay alive. After clearing 15-6 1/4 on his second try, the bar was raised to 16-2 — the record-setting mark he had sought all year, and one he had cleared just once in his career, at a meet the previous month.
It was a different Corey Sledge this time from the 2015 Culver vaulter. He was loose. He was not overthinking — if he was thinking at all.
“I was completely out of my own head,” Sledge said. “I was other places. I was talking with other kids. There’s one kid … that I was helping coach. It ended up being really good. I was moving around and I wasn’t getting cold. I wasn’t just sitting down by myself and thinking. My mind was clear.”
“This year, he was mentally sound and rose to the occasion,” Dove said. “All that hard work he had put in throughout the year and in the offseason came out in that moment in time.”
A light drizzle showered Sledge as he took to the runway for his third and final attempt at 16-2. A slight breeze wafted into his face. He sprinted toward the pit and sprung himself into the air. Sledge reached an apex, turned and pushed the pole away from himself. The bar remained still. On his descent to the mat, Sledge pumped his fists into the air and screamed in celebration.
“Right as I cleared it,” a beaming Sledge said, “I yelled, ‘YES!’ I threw up my hands on the way down.”
Sledge was back on top of the podium, with the highest vault in 2A state meet history. And his 16-2 was the best mark in all six classifications at the state meet — even two inches higher than Petz’s winning 16-0.
“I was all for it, man,” Petz said. “I’m glad he did it. It was awesome. Proud of him.”
It was a relief for Sledge, and, with a record-breaking send-off, a most fitting way to end his high school career.
“It’s awesome,” Sledge said. “It’s probably the best I’ve felt in a long time.”
“I don’t think he could have written it any better,” Dove added. “To not only win it but set the state meet record, and then on top of that, that jump was the best vault of all classifications. It was something to behold.”