Bethel Park’s Malecki, Underwood vaulting to personal best marks

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Saturday, May 15, 2021 | 11:01 AM


It takes a unique type of high school athlete to compete in the pole vault event.

“It does,” said Mark Jacobs, Bethel Park’s pole vaulting coach. “You need that combination of speed, strength and determination that every great athlete needs, but at the same time you need grit and to be a student of the event.

“I tell my athletes that pole vaulting is not a try-hard event; you can’t just try harder and get better. It is so much technique and we are constantly having conversations about techniques. We take time and watch every vault after meets to see where we can improve and why that specific vault went the way it did.”

Introducing two members of the Bethel Park girls track and field program, pole vaulters Megan Malecki and Olivia Underwood.

“I have been extremely happy with both girls so far this year. They have both improved on their personal-bests, which is not the easiest thing to do in the pole vault,” said Jacobs, a former pole vaulter at Canon-McMillan and Robert Morris who serves as Bethel Park’s girls coach. “Megan has improved by 15 inches and has crushed our school record (11 feet, 1 inch, set by Rebecca Libell in 2018) with a vault of 11-9.

“Olivia has gotten a new personal-best by four inches and is very close to clearing 10 feet. I believe the day she clears 10 feet, she will clear the next height as well.”

A senior and Millersville recruit, Malecki captured the top spot at the South Hills Classic, was a medalist at the TSTCA and South Fayette meets, and placed fifth at the recent 47th annual Baldwin Invitational.

“I was happy with my vaulting at the Baldwin invite,” she said. “However, I wish the weather conditions were a little nicer. I wish I could have gone higher, but I competed very well with the cards I was dealt.

“My current PR is 11-9. I have always had a goal of achieving 12-2 before I ended my senior year, which I never truly believed was possible until this year. My other goal for this year is to make it to states.”

Malecki used to participate in the hurdles and 400-meter relay events, and has a strong background in gymnastics.

“I have done competitive gymnastics for 16 years,” she said. “It has helped me tremendously with learning to pole vault. A lot of the skills and drills (on bars) can translate into pole vaulting.

“I never wanted to pole vault but my father really wanted me to try. I finally gave in and absolutely loved it. As much as I don’t want to admit it, he was right. I have never experienced something so addicting as pole vaulting. Once you clear one bar you never want to stop. I decided to put all my focus into pole vault for my senior year.”

Malecki has overcome various setbacks in her athletic career. She suffered a broken ankle as a freshman and needed surgery and screws to repair it.

“Once I recovered from that injury,” she said, “I then lost my sophomore season due to a torn quad. That injury is something I will always have to deal with throughout my life.”

Her junior season was lost due to covid-19 pandemic protocols.

“Throughout all of that, I never once thought about quitting,” Malecki said. “I fell in love with this sport and am so excited to continue with it at Millersville.”

Malecki plans to study chemistry engineering/instrumentation automation in college and eventually work with machines or repairing machines used for chemistry labs.

“This is Megan’s first outdoor season since her freshman year,” Jacobs said. “Obviously, she lost last year because of covid, but she lost her sophomore year because of a fluky leg injury.

“She never let any of that stop her from training and preparing for when she would get to have an outdoor season, even building pole vault drills in her backyard during covid.”

Underwood, meanwhile, is a junior who is in her second year of competition. She finished fifth in the pole vault at South Fayette earlier this season.

“With Olivia, we have really been working on her approach and takeoff,” Jacobs said. “It has really been starting to click in the last few weeks, and I have been seeing some great results in practice. She’s starting to get on some new poles and she looks different in the air.

“She is going to have a meet where she will set a new personal-best multiple times and I cannot wait for that to happen.”

Underwood ended up 11th at the Baldwin Invitational, one of the biggest high school track and field meets in the state.

“Well, Baldwin was interesting,” she said. “The wind and weather, in general, greatly affects the vault, so it wasn’t a good day for the Bethel girls. I missed all my warmup because I spent the morning at school taking the SATs.

“The first vault I took was at a bar, which isn’t usual for a competition. However, I tried my best. I didn’t have much focus at the meet, but I’m looking forward to the last few meets of the season.”

Underwood’s PR in the pole vault is 9-6. She would like to go over 10 feet before the end of the season.

“My goal is definitely double digits,” she said, “That would be great, but I would have to put in a lot of work before WPIALs.”

Underwood formerly competed in swimming, and as a freshman participated in the 200, javelin and 400-meter relay events.

“One of my friends from youth group, Becca Libell, was a great vaulter and inspired me to join the team,” Underwood said. “I was missing the athletic part of my day, so why not pole vault?”

As of May 10, both girls had qualified for the WPIAL Class AAA finals to be held May 20 at Slippery Rock.

“I believe both will place at WPIALs, with Megan having an excellent opportunity to come home with the gold and qualify for states,” Jacobs said. “I have seen their capabilities in practice and cannot wait for some nice weather so they can do it in a big meet.

“Both girls take pride in their craft; both are amazing in the classroom too, taking numerous honors and AP classes. They are the definition of student-athletes. My personal goal is for both of them be standing on that podium together at the WPIAL championships.”

Another leading pole vault prospect for the Black Hawks is sophomore Katie Krol-Schaus.

“As for the girls team, in general, we are having an exciting season with a lot of young, talented athletes,” Jacobs said. “Jenna Lang, a freshman, is having an amazing season. She went to states in cross country and is ranked high in the WPIAL in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200. She won the mile at South Fayette and took second in the two-mile; at the TSTCA meet, she took second in the 800.

“It is going to be an enjoyment watching her run over the next three-plus years.”

Lang finished third in the mile and fifth in the 3,200-meter hurdles at Baldwin.

Senior Alexa Psotka won the javelin event at the South Hills Classic.

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