BALTIMORE — After four years of high school pole vaulting, Erik Starks can sometimes feel at least twice his age.
Getting out of bed the next day, even walking around right after a meet can be a real chore for the 18-year-old senior at Oakdale High School. His achy back reminds him daily of all of his vaults.
But Starks’ balky back never overcame the power of his mind, especially at an event like Thursday’s state meet at Morgan State University.
“I told myself on the runway, ‘This is it. I can’t go out like this,’” Starks said near the end of the first day of the state outdoor meet, which featured schools in the 2A and 1A classifications.
Suppressing all of the pain that he could, Starks won the 2A boys pole vault for his second state championship. He powered through his opening heights, sometimes going over the bar at an awkward angle and then clutching his back as he came off the mat, before saving his best vault of the day to clear the winning height (14 feet). That one was right down the middle, nearly picture perfect.
“Honestly, I was doubting myself,” said Starks, who also won the 2A pole vault (14 feet, 1 inch) at the state indoor meet in February.
“But having [teammate] Sam [Starrs] there, competing alongside me, helped me to get back in the zone. I just said, ‘I’ve got to win my last high-school meet ever. I can’t let some junior take it.’ Even though I love all of those other guys.”
Starks joined teammates Lee Goodson, Nick Stokes, Collin Dempsey and Kyle Lund as the Frederick County champions on Day One of the meet.
Goodson, Stokes, Dempsey and Lund teamed up to win the 2A boys 4x800 relay in 7 minutes, 57.01 seconds, more than a second faster than second-place Century.
The two championships thrust the Oakdale boys into the early lead in the 2A boys team standings with 44 points. Century is second with 37. The Oakdale boys are a few months removed from their state indoor team championship and are one of the favorites to win the outdoor championship.
“I wouldn’t trade this team for anything,” Starks said. “I have made so many memories over these last four years. It’s going to be bittersweet leaving these guys. It’s a brotherhood. I definitely plan to come back [from vaulting at Salisbury University] to watch these guys next year.”
While there was some doubt hovering over Starks, given the condition of his back, there wasn’t much doubt about Oakdale’s 4x800 relay. The Bears were the top seed in the event by more than five seconds. On top of that, Dempsey handed off the baton to Lund for the anchor leg tied for the lead.
“That’s exactly where we want to be,” said Lund, one of the top high school 800-meter runners in the country.
The Bears seldom found themselves trailing going into the anchor leg of the 4x800 all season. They were usually well ahead of the pack or, at least, tied for the lead.
“We are all good friends, all good runners. We all push each other to run faster,” said Lund, who later finished second in the 2A boys 3,200 run (9:28.36).
Starks, meanwhile, showed gradual improvement over the course of his four years as a pole vaulter. By the end of his freshman year, he had cleared 10 feet. He raised the bar to 12-6 at the end of his sophomore year, 13-6 at the end of his junior season and then cleared a personal-best 15 feet earlier this month at the Frederick County Public Schools meet.
“I did not expect him to hit 15 feet this season. That was huge,” Starks’ coach, Chris Heinze, said. “Usually, by the time they are seniors, [vaultors] tend to flatten out with their heights. But Erik just kept on going higher and higher.”
He also had Starrs, who cleared 13 feet to tie for fifth place Thursday, to push him all season long. Heinze said Starrs is the first Maryland high school pole vaultor to get as high as 13 feet during his freshman season.
Among the close calls for Frederick County athletes at Thursday’s meet was Catoctin’s girls 4x800 relay, which finished second in 1A (10:01.32) after Boonsboro’s Ainsley Plumadore made up a 50-meter deficit over the final 200 meters of the race to give the Warriors the win in 9:59.14. Brunswick finished third in 10:14.61.
Oakdale’s Emily McGraw, meanwhile, saw her lead in the 2A discus disappear on one of the final throws of the event. She finished second to La Plata’s Emma Vanden, who posted a winning distance of 108 feet, 7 inches on her final attempt. McGraw’s top throw traveled 105-9.
“I think this will really help to prepare me for throwing in college,” said McGraw, a senior participating in her first state meet who will continue her career at McDaniel College in Westminster. “I was super nervous at the start of the event, but I was also super excited to be here.”