During the high school careers of incoming Bulldogs Chase Berry and Josie Puelz, one of the biggest challenges they often faced was finding a challenge. They will get one on Thursday, Aug. 1 at the Capitol District Pole Vault put on by the Omaha Sports Commission. The event has been hyped with use of the tag line, “They’ve vaulted in the Olympics and now they are vaulting in Omaha.”
As 2019 high school graduates, Berry from Seward and Puelz from Lincoln Lutheran, the future vault Dogs still qualify for the High School Invitational portion of the event. Later in the evening of Aug. 1, the “Elite Competition” will take place. Young vaulters such as Berry and Puelz will have the likes of Sam Kendricks (19’ 6” in the pole vault) and Sandi Morris (16’ 4”) to look up to as examples.
“We’ve never had this level of competition in the state of Nebraska before,” said Concordia pole vault coach Jason Berry, the father of Chase. “To have the elite level individuals for kids like Chase and Josie to sit and talk with and interact with is something that a lot of athletes don’t get a chance to do. They get to pick their brains and ask questions of individuals that are where they want to be. It’s like a high school football player getting to sit down with a pro football player.”
Berry and Puelz seem quite comfortable with the potential of a grand spectacle greeting them in Omaha in two weeks. In a practice session on Wednesday (July 17), the two Nebraska state champions beat the heat (sort of) by vaulting inside the Fieldhouse on Concordia’s campus. They smiled often and fielded questions before getting down to business as 1980s music selections from Coach Berry’s speaker served as a backdrop.
The two local high flyers are entered into the Capitol District Pole Vault as one of seven competitors on both the men’s and women’s sides. Based on the entry list, Berry is seeded fourth at 16’ 1” while Puelz is seeded fifth at 12’ 9.” With this being a new event, no one knows exactly what to expect.
“It’s super exciting to have the opportunity to meet people that you look up to,” Puelz said. “You really watch carefully because of their amazing technique and their strength. That’s going to be really exciting and then it’s so cool to be able to be part of the competition the next day. Not only are there people from Nebraska that I get to compete against but there are kids from all over. There will be girls jumping 13-14 feet so I think that’s a really good motivator to push me to rise to a new level of competition.”
The Berrys are no strangers to street vaults. Coach Berry has been running Seward’s Fourth of July street vault for many years while helping increase the popularity of such spectacles. The event in Omaha will feature one of Berry’s own runways. It will provide a stage for his son Chase and other elite athletes.
“There are a lot more street vaults popping up around the country,” Chase said. “Because they’re just so much fun. People are catching on to that. They really draw in a crowd because pole vault is such a unique event.
“Once we found out we were confirmed for this competition and found out about some of the other people who were going to be there, Josie and I both started getting really excited.”
The Capitol District Pole Vault will serve as a final outing as high school athletes for Chase and Josie. It’s starting to dawn on them that college is just about upon them. Both have grown accustomed to the attention they have earned at the state meet and other competitions around Nebraska. The daughter of Concordia Athletic Hall of Famer John Puelz, Josie starred while leading Lincoln Lutheran to a team state championship.
Josie is already a polished interviewee after she soaked up the spotlight with four gold medals at the state championships her senior year.
“I can’t remember ever smiling as much as a did that day,” Puelz said. “Mom said that if you could have laid out your state meet how you wanted it to go, it couldn’t have been this good. I PR’ed in everything. Getting four golds and the all-state gold for pole vault was incredible and such an exciting weekend. I couldn’t have asked for a better way to top off my season. It’s so exciting.”
Beginning in Omaha, the competition ramps up in a big way for the two Bulldogs with bright futures. Chase is looking forward to joining the NAIA’s top rated pole vault group and having more athletes who can raise his own level.
“It’s going to be a change as far as having people to jump with more consistently at every meet,” Chase said. “At the high school meets I didn’t have much competition all the way through until state. That’s the part I’m really looking forward to – having people who are a lot stronger and a lot faster than I am to be able to push me. That will really help.”
For once, Chase and Josie will not be the favorites heading into a meet – and that’s okay. The meet in Omaha will signal a new chapter in their athletic careers. A lot will be expected. That’s also just fine with them.
Says Coach Berry, “They both have expectations that are a lot of times higher than what anyone else would set for them. They both have lived on a stage where they have been state champs, nationally ranked and they’ve had the targets on their backs. They understand the pressure and how to deal with a pressure moment.
“I want to see how they react coming in as the underdogs, which we’ve never seen that with either of them.”