Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 6, 2013

BANNER ELK — Evan Webb’s run of pole-vaulting success has led to a barrage of text messages, but the one from Rick Roseman, his track and field coach at East Rowan, meant the most.
“We didn’t always see eye-to-eye when I was at East,” Webb said. “We didn’t always get along. But Coach sent me a message this week to tell me he’s proud of the man that I’ve become. That meant everything.”
Webb experienced the standard maturity issues in high school. He wore out even the famously patient Roseman’s patience. Webb’s future with the program was shaky at one point, but he turned the corner just in time.
“He changed and he changed in a great way,” Roseman said.
Webb, recently named Field Athlete of the Year for the Southeast Region, made the long journey from Lees-McRae College to Birmingham, Ala., for the Men’s Indoor Track and Field Division II Championships on Tuesday. With traffic snarls, it took more than eight hours, but he watched vaulting film most of the way.
On Wednesday, Webb had his first workout at the Birmigham Cross Plex. This Saturday, starting at 3:30 p.m., he’ll be one of 17 elite competitors battling for a national title. He’s ranked ninth, but it’s wide open.
“This season has blown my mind,” Webb said. “If you’d told me in November I’d be ranked first in the country at one time, I would’ve laughed. The really insane part is that now I’m in the Nationals.”
Webb was 3A state champ as a senior at East in 2010. He cleared 14 feet. He had an offer from Western Carolina, but he opted for Lees-McRae in Banner Elk, a little school that sits 4,000 feet above sea level and has 850 students.
“I wanted a small school with a good track program,” Webb said. “And they told me they’d get me all the poles I wanted.”
He’s cracked a few of those poles and nearly broke his wrist when one snapped on him.
Pole vaulting is a daring event, a fearless sprint down a runway to plant a pole in a box for an aerial ride over a crossbar. Modern poles are incredibly flexible, and watching them bend into a U-shape during high-level competition can put your heart in your throat.
“I got up to 14 feet, 7 inches early here, but then I had injuries,” Webb said. “Shoulder issues. A broken ankle.”
As a sophomore, he finally cleared the 15-foot barrier for a sixth-place finish in the Kent Taylor Invitational in Chapel Hill.
Last summer, Lees-McRae hired former Appalachian State vaulter and jumper Mike Wilson as an assistant to head coach Fletcher Ley, and that was a turning point.
Wilson made two technical tweaks. Webb swapped the little hop he’d been using for a stand-still start. He also changed his head position on his vault.
“Really, everything changed,” Webb said. “He put me on a new weight training program and we did a lot more running. I got stronger and I got faster. We sat down before this season and laid out what we thought were realistic goals, but I reached them in that first meet. Then I started reaching some unrealistic goals.”
In his first outing, Webb surprised himself by clearing 16 feet, 1 inch — to win at Appalachian State. At that point in the season, he had the best vault in all of Division II.
There was an interval of seven weeks before Webb’s second meet on Jan. 19 in Boone. This time he became the first in Lees-McRae history to soar past the 5-meter plateau (16 feet, 33/4 inches). Heights are often expressed in the metric system in college meets.
“It’s just more exact,” Webb explained. “You’re not dealing with quarter inches. When I got 5 meters, I felt like that was a great accomplishment. I’d worked for it.”
He didn’t stop there. On Feb. 24, he raised his personal best in a meet at George Mason. He cleared 5.05 meters (16-63/4 inches).
“I believe I could’ve jumped 17 (feet) that day if I hadn’t hurt a hamstring,” Webb said.
Webb is well-versed in Rowan County pole-vaulting history. Former East star Matt Price set the bar high during his career at UNC Wilmington, topping out at a school-record 17 feet, 1 inch (5.21 meters). Webb has worked with Price, knows him well, and believes heights greater than 17-1 are in his future.
Webb also will compete in Lees-McRae’s outdoor track season, but he figures his best marks will be inside.
“It snows here every day, but then you might go to South Carolina for an outdoor meet with heat and humidity,” Webb said. “But indoors, everything is controlled and everything is stable. All that can mess you up indoors is you.”
Roseman believes Webb’s future is unlimited.
“He always was so talented,” Roseman said. “He’ll keep on going higher. It won’t shock me if East has a guy in the Olympics someday.”