Reaching new heights: open discussion with coach Phillips

BLACKSBURG – Following months of preparation and training fueled by a collective desire to take the Virginia Tech track and field program to new heights, the Hokie coaching staff, led by 16-year coach Dave Cianelli, is optimistic for the new season.

The Hokies open their 2017 campaign in four weeks, as they play host to the Virginia Tech Invitational on Jan. 13-14, at Rector Fieldhouse, in Blacksburg. Leading up to the two-day event, will interview each event coach to discuss the excitement, challenges and expectations that await this year.

Most recently, we sat down with pole vault coach Bob Phillips. Phillips’ vaulters are coming off a successful 2016 outdoor season, maybe even the finest in school history. The Hokies claimed the top seven places in the event at the 2016 ACC Outdoor Track and Field Championships, accumulating 28 points toward the team total. Recent graduate Chris Uhle won the gold medal, with Torben Laidig finishing second and Deakin Volz coming in third. The vaulters performances lifted Tech to its second ACC outdoor title and its sixth overall ACC team crown as a program.

Read coach Phillips’ full transcription below or click HERE to watch the full season preview.

Talk a little about your event group. What are your goals for the upcoming season?

Coach Bob Phillips: The pole vault squad is a little bit smaller this year. We had a really large group last year, seven men and seven women. This year, we have nine vaulters on the team and (freshman) Jaelyn (Demory) will redshirt during the year, so really we only have eight people that will be competing for Virginia Tech this season. Even though the quantity is down, the quality is really high. We have some great kids coming back, including three all-Americans on the men’s side. Of those returners that are competing, every single one has scored multiple times in the conference. It’s a high quality group.

With the start of the 2017 season right around the corner, how would you access the progress the team has made throughout the preseason? Are you pleased with the team’s consistency level to this point?

BP: Overall, we had a really good fall. Almost all of them have set short run and mid-run PR’s, and they have just now pushed back to the long runs. We had a couple kids that are dinged up a little bit, so that’s the only reason why they haven’t already done the same thing. They are getting there, and we are getting everyone back in time for the season. Overall in terms of speed, strength and technical development, it has been a good fall. Everyone is ahead of where they were at this time last year. The group’s consistency has been pretty good. It’s always difficult to train in this event. A certain amount of adrenaline is always helpful for this kind of event, but I think they are ready to start competing and let that competition pull that last little bit out of them.

This year’s pole vault group retained several upperclassmen with a great deal of experience. Who are the key returners for both the men’s and women’s squad, and how does the depth of this team help with consistent performances in the long run? Who are you looking at to assume a leadership role this year?

BP: In terms of key returners on the men’s side, we have three all-Americans in (redshirt junior) Torben Laidig, (sophomore) Deakin Volz and (redshirt senior) Brad Johnson. Torben (Laidig) and Brad (Johnson) have been conference champions, and Deakin (Volz) was just a freshman last year who medaled at conference and went on to have an outstanding summer season. He won the U20 World Championships in Poland, so those guys are going to contribute a lot to the leadership of the team. On the women’s side, (senior) Erica (Hjerpe) was jumping fantastic during the outdoor season last year. She was jumping at a level that would’ve taken her to the national meet, but she hurt her toe. She’s over that injury now and training well, so I look at her to be a big contributor as well. (Junior) Hannah (Meador) is back, and she has scored at both the indoor and outdoor conference meets last year. Those kids are working hard. As a group, they have some goals, and they get together and discuss those things. Just like last year, there is a lot of comradery amongst this group. While there may not be one person who tends to be the leader, they definitely know where they are heading as a group.

The men’s side only has two underclassmen in sophomore Deakin Volz and freshman Jaelyn Demory. Deakin is already coming into his own, claiming gold in the pole vault event at the 2016 IAAF U20 World Championships last summer. What excites you about Deakin?

BP: I think the exciting thing about (sophomore) Deakin (Volz) is that he is making steady improvements. He has a lot of physical gifts, and it is just a matter of time before we can pull those things out. At the U20 World Championships, his back tighten up a little bit after the 18 feet, 6 inches bar. We decided to stop jumping because he already won, but his jumps were at a caliber where he would’ve cleared multiple bars. I think he could’ve jumped one or two bars higher. His running mechanics continue to get better, and his work with the pole continues to get better. He has a bright future with three more years of eligibility left. That’s exciting for me. (Junior) Torben (Laidig) is healthy and way ahead of where he was last year. He has this year and next year, so those two guys could make some noise in terms of earning world rankings. We are excited to have them here.

The team ended the 2016 season on a big high, sending four pole vaulters to the NCAA Championships for the first time in program history. Torben Laidig placed second in the event as a sophomore. Do you see this year’s squad picking up right where last year’s team left off?

BP: Yeah, I think so. There was a couple of things that the team did last year that was really amazing. With the quality of athletes that we have coming back, I really think they can accomplish some really great things this year.

What do you like about this year’s schedule and how will the challenges help this team develop and progress toward the postseason?

BP: Our competition schedule is pretty typical. We do a lot of home meets indoor, which I think is good for us because the kids are able to get off to a good start in their academics for the spring semester. We go to Notre Dame for the conference championship this season. We have not jumped there before, but I think it is always fun to jump in a new facility. The guys are really excited about that meet. We open the outdoor season with the Texas Relays, which always a high quality meet. The kids jumped really well there last year, and they are looking forward to go back there again this year to kick off the outdoor season. Then once again, we are scheduled for the outdoor championships in Oregon. That is a special place to compete. People are excited about the meets that are on the schedule.

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