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Soaring confidence, relentless drive fuel national champion Zohner

By Jacob Knabel on Mar. 14, 2024 in Track & Field

The ‘aha moment’ for Zach Zohner occurred during the middle of the 2023 indoor track and field season. Zohner decided he would no longer be hampered by hamstring injuries. Actually, it was the fear of reaggravation that clouded his thoughts. The body had healed, but the mind was still struggling to catch up. “Coach, I’m just done with this,” Zohner told Concordia pole vault coach Jason Berry.

At first blush, Berry feared Zohner meant he was ready to give up on vaulting. But the Battle Creek, Neb., native quickly cleared things up. At that point, Zohner had been a two-time national qualifier with the potential for a whole lot more.

“He kind of threw me for a loop,” Berry said of that moment of significance. “He comes up to me and says, ‘Coach, I’m just done with this.’ I was like, ‘Are you done with pole vault? What are you done with?’ He answered, ‘I’m just done worrying about my hamstrings – I’m just gonna go.’ I think it was that mentality that made the difference. His passion and his drive just took control. It was contagious because Zach Bennetts and Chase (Berry) fed off it. All three of them excelled throughout the second half of the indoor season. Zach was a catalyst for them. He turned it loose and really built confidence.”

If not for that breakthrough, there wouldn’t have been the national runner-up claim at indoor 2023, the third-place NAIA finish at outdoor 2023 or the mountaintop triumph on March 2, 2024. That’s the day Zohner became the NAIA’s indoor pole vault national champion, a distinction he’s still getting used to. While he processes how all of this occurred in a roughly 13-month period that saw him go from fearing injury to thriving, he can’t hide a wide grin.

Fearlessness in the moment is exactly what the 2024 indoor national championship meet required. With a national title not yet secured, Zohner missed his first attempt at 16’ 4 ¾,” passed on to the next height, missed an attempt at 16’ 6 ¾” and faced a defining moment as an athlete. According to Zohner, the “rhythm in his run” was just a bit off on his two missed attempts. Zohner managed to calm himself down and get over the bar. Zohner wasn’t done yet. With the national title nailed down, Zohner cleared his second try at 17’ 2 ¾” for a personal best.

On both of those final two successful vaults, Zohner immediately bounced up off the mat and fist-pumped with the right hand before embracing Coach Berry. Nearby, members of Zohner’s family howled with their approval. The right mentality on the grandest stage made Zohner a national champion. He effectively backed up that No. 1 NAIA seed.

Said Zohner less than two weeks later, “It was stressful. I think I did a pretty good job the weeks before not thinking about it too much. When I did, I just let it pass. It almost didn’t work out because I cleared 16’ 6” on my third attempt. If I would have missed that, I would have gotten second or third. There were a lot of prayers. It hasn’t (sunk in) as much as you’d think. It was just two weeks ago. It’s still really special.”

National titles don’t just happen overnight. The Battle Creek High School graduate arrived at Concordia in the fall of 2020 after having competed in track and field in addition to football and basketball as a prep athlete. Like a lot of high school athletes in the state, Zohner ate up the chance to perform on the gridiron underneath the lights on Friday nights. He played receiver on offense and cornerback on defense. Zohner began pole vaulting the summer leading into seventh grade, but he was determined not to pigeonhole himself into one activity just yet.

By the close of his high school career, Zohner vaulted 14’ 4” and was a fourth-place state medalist. He also excelled in the hurdles as an all-around athlete. The vault was something Zohner started at the nudging of his father Kevin. Though Zach never attended a camp at Concordia, he felt a pull towards Concordia University, located less than a two-hours drive south of his hometown.

“I liked the smaller town feel,” Zohner said. “It was between going here and going to UNL and not doing any sports. I just couldn’t see myself going there and being a number and not having as many opportunities to meet people as I have here. I’m definitely glad I’m here.”

As Berry would tell you, 14’ 4” is a good height for a high school vaulter in Nebraska, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee future collegiate stardom. Berry liked that Zohner was more than just a quality athlete. He was someone who would work hard and never stop resolving to master the art of the vault. A near 4.0 student, Zohner was prepared to tackle the intricacies of the vault just as hard as he would his physics major.

When injuries hit, Zohner found another barrier he would have to clear on his path to the top of the podium. “Those things happen sometimes when athletes come in and the training is different and the environment is different,” Berry said. “He struggled his freshman and sophomore year with those physical things. The whole time, we’re still working on technique and trying to improve. He’s always one of those kids who has been driven. He’s always been hungry for more information, more knowledge and a better understanding of the vault. It’s a real pleasure to work with someone like that. He’s always had a strong work ethic and drive.”

Those traits combined with Zohner’s soaring confidence have him chasing down the program’s all-time greats in the vault. Zohner hit the 17-foot mark for the first time at the Concordia Classic in late January. On the school’s all-time indoor list, the 17-foot club includes legends like Gene Brooks, TJ Kloster, Joel Sievers, Don Kitzman – and now Zach Zohner. Naturally, Zach felt honored when Gene Brooks (the only 18-foot vaulter in school history) texted to congratulate him on becoming Concordia’s latest pole vault national champion.

Zohner also hit 17 feet at the 2024 GPAC Indoor Championships while winning his second career conference pole vault title. That feat was no surprise given Zohner’s consistency all season. He won pole vault championships at the Early Bird Meet, the Polar Dog Invite, the Concordia Classic and the Concordia Invite leading up to the conference meet. Repeatable excellence is never easy in the pole vault, but Zohner has made it seem that way.

“It’s taken the last three years putting things in order, one at a time,” Zohner said. “It’s been me and Coach Berry going back and forth realizing we can’t worry about something later in the vault before I’ve got something on the runway worked out. I have to keep my head screwed on straight.”

That aspect of Zohner’s game has made all the difference. The rise of Zohner has positively impacted the entire pole vault group as sophomore Mayson Ostermeyer became an All-American for the first time this indoor season.

“When you get the mind and body right, those heights start showing up,” Berry said. “Now we’re shifting to – how do we get him higher? It’s been a real joy to coach him. I love seeing what he’s doing with his teammates and how they respond to him. He’s a good leader.”

Zohner credits Berry with helping him achieve that physical-mental synchronicity it takes to become a national champion. In the middle of the 2023 indoor season, Zohner stopped allowing the fear of leg injuries to paralyze his thoughts. “Your body can be ready but sometimes your mind isn’t,” Zohner said. “You have to get those two lined up and have the patience to go the whole way.”

Of course, another essential element gave Zohner the courage to truly believe in himself. As Zohner says, “I just have to thank God for everything. He’s led me through it all and helped me through the obstacles.”