The bar has been raised

Former Tiger becomes first medal winner in Bearkat history

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With Clayton Fritsch’s second-attempt clearance at 5.75 meters in the pole vault not only set a new personal and school record, but it also served as the first time a trio of competitors cleared that height at the NCAA Outdoor National Championships.

On top of that going on inside of Mike A. Myers Stadium at the University of Texas at Austin, there were seven athletes above the 5.7-meter mark which pushed the overall numbers closer to those seen at the 2016 Olympic Trials according to one bystander.

It was that spirited of a race to the top that Fritsch saw as the major difference-maker between this championship meet compared to that one ran on the indoor circuit where he took home seventh just over three months ago.

“It was really that 5.75-meter jump that I knew, ‘OK, this is something that I knew was the higher bar that could take some people out,’” Fritsch remembered thinking. “I knew I had to get over it and that I was going to be part of a pretty historical event.”

He did indeed make it over that bar to cement his name in record books forever, not only in the halls of NCAA track and field history, but also in the lore of Sam Houston State’s track program.

Fritsch’s third-place medal will go down as the first piece of hardware earned by a Bearkat in the outdoor championships, an aspect that still had yet to really hit him on his return to Huntsville Friday afternoon.

“It really hasn’t (set in) yet, it’ll probably take a couple of days,” Fritsch said. “Me and Coach (Cutter Bernhard) were kind of talking about how it’s awesome to close my sophomore year out with a big bang and now all we can really look forward to is jumping higher and getting more medals.”

Tagging along with the bronze medal was an All-American nomination, Fritsch’s second of his sophomore campaign.

“Truly blessed I was able to get that (second All-American bid) and to PR on one of the biggest stages of track and field, that’s just a cherry-on-top kind of thing,” Fritsch added. “If you want to PR anywhere, that’s the place; you can give it your all and give it the best stuff you got … Can’t really be mad about places there when you’re jumping the best you can.”

The series of jumps obtained its history-making marks thanks in part to the two athletes Fritsch was chasing, the same pair he had been all year.

Chris Nilsen, a junior from the University of South Dakota, and Mondo Duplantis, an LSU freshman, already had their names etched into record books by holding the meet and college records respectively, with Nilsen’s mark of 5.83 meters coming last year and Duplantis’ NCAA-wide record of 6 meters recorded in early May.

“The bigger meets I jump at, I get a little closer with those guys and it’s also kind of cool because I’m starting to feel a lot more comfortable, I’m able to have a conversation and still be able to jump,” Fritsch said of his relationship with the two best pole vaulters in the world. “My attempts at 5.8 meters; that’s when I kind of knew that I’m really up here with these guys, I’m not too far behind them and that I do have a shot, now and in the future, to keep jumping with these guys.”

That future was looking quite promising with a possible rising-star rivalry between the sophomore Fritsch and freshman Duplantis and it has sort of always been that way.

“When I was in high school talking with my coaches there it’s been, ‘Let’s get Mondo, he’s jumping pretty high,’” Fritsch said. “I remember Jeff Brandes telling me, ‘Why can’t you do that? There’s no limitations; you put in the work you put in the effort you can go get him,’ and now that’s kinda cool to see I’m getting a little bit closer and the hard work really is paying off … Just a couple more years and we’ll get him.”

That situation may have to play out on the professional – or Olympic – stage after Duplantis announced Monday that he will forego his remaining three years of eligibility to turn pro and start preparing to represent his native Sweden.

“In the next 16 months, the best athletes in the world will compete for World Championships and Olympic medals,” his farewell statement reads. “I plan to be among them.”

Fritsch’s plan includes a busy summer starting with the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships next month in Des Moines, Iowa and possibly building to international competition after that.

“I’ll be back and forth (between Huntsville and Sealy) but we’ve got USA’s coming up in July and there’s a couple big meets maybe overseas like NACAC (North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships) or Pan Am (Pan American Games) I’m gonna try and jump at,” Fritsch said. “I’m going to have to find a happy medium between going back and forth and seeing some family and friends and also coming back up here and going to work a little bit.”

That work will be done under the watchful eyes of jumping coach Cutter Bernhard, who Fritsch has mentioned developing a close relationship in just a couple of years.

“Yeah he’s helped quite a bit, from high school I was jumping 16 feet, 4 inches and now it’s 18 feet, 10 inches it’s pretty unbelievable,” Fritsch said. “We have a good connection right now and it’s working pretty good we’re basically on the same page, he can say something and I know exactly what he’s meaning and same with me how I’m feeling.”

Of course, it all comes down to the ability to calm the nerves and simply execute.

“(My support system) definitely smoothened out the atmosphere to make it not so tense and I’m pretty blessed to have that around me; the coaches and family and friends are all able to lighten the mood up a little bit and just to know I have that kind of support means a lot,” Fritsch said. “I can do as much as I can but it really comes down to the family, friends and the support I get so that’s the cherry on top which helps me out quite a bit.”

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