In his heart, Jon Walsh knew he could pole vault at the NCAA Division I level.
The 2012 Woodstock North graduate won the Class 2A pole vault championship at the IHSA Boys State Track and Field Meet, the first state medal in any sport in the school’s young history. After the NCAA Clearinghouse didn't accept some of his classes, Walsh vaulted in junior college, but he made the best of those two years.
Walsh raised his grades, along with his vaulting, and will attend Southern Illinois University in Carbondale this fall on an athletic scholarship. Walsh said, between federal student aid and the scholarship, all his costs will be covered.
Walsh will get his education in sports science for free, while the Salukis will be getting a 17-foot vaulter.
“This was definitely what I anticipated after high school,” Walsh said. “When SIU talked to me, their pole vault coach [Brian Porter] came from Texas Tech and has been there two years. We connected pretty well and I liked their programs.”
Walsh will become the third area vaulter at the D-I level in the last five years. Crystal Lake Central's Zach Siegmeier (Minnesota) and McHenry's Corey Szamlewski (Northern Iowa) are the other two.
Walsh won the Class 2A state title at 15-6 two years ago on a pole he purchased the morning before the finals. He bought it because he was looking for a longer pole to go higher. It was delivered at Eastern Illinois University’s O’Brien Stadium before warmups, Walsh went through a few jumps on it, then went out and won state.
Walsh vaulted his freshman year at Iowa Western Community in Council Bluffs, then transferred to Lincoln this year. There, he was able to work with Mike Cockerham’s Flying Dragons Pole Vault Club in Bloomington. He trained with Cockerham twice a week.
“[Cockerham] is a really good coach,” He helped me fix a lot of technical issues I had. There’s still problems, but he’d help me get on the right poles at the right time. I was also doing really good lifting and stuff. That helped a lot.”
Walsh remembered feeling a little bit like a Little Leaguer with too big a bat on his 17-0 vault. He was using a 16-1 pole, but gripping it like a 15-6 pole.
“There was a 2-foot gap between,” he said. “It’s the first vault where I pushed off and kept leaving the pole.”
SIU had been interested long before that vault. Walsh visited the Carbondale school in the winter and was approached by another local athlete who competes for the Salukis.
“I knew he was being recruited and I knew I’d gone to grade school with a Jon Walsh,” said 2012 Cary-Grove graduate Josh Freeman, a thrower at SIU. “I said, ‘Did you go to Algonquin Road School when you were younger?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ I hadn’t really seen him since the third grade.”
Although they competed in the Fox Valley Conference, they competed in different events, so they had not become reacquainted. After the 2012 state meet, Freeman realized who Walsh was because of stories in the Northwest Herald about his Class 3A shot put and discus titles, and about Walsh’s victory.
Now, the two who went to kindergarten together, and who won state titles from the same conference in the same year, will be teammates their final two years of college.
“Come this fall, we’ll be talking a lot,” said Freeman, who qualified last weekend for the NCAA Track and Field Championships June 11-14 in Eugene, Ore. “Our pole vault coach is a really good friend and he has really big expectations for [Walsh]. It should be a really fun year for our team as a whole.”
Walsh was back at O’Brien Stadium last weekend helping former teammate Jimmy Krenger, who was a freshman when Walsh won state. Krenger took ninth in the Class 2A pole vault and joins Walsh as the school’s only state medalists.
“His parents [Marty and Michelle] brought me here with them,” Walsh said. “I’ve been helping Jimmy out. I helped teach him how to vault [as a freshman] and he’s getting pretty good.”