ATHENS -- The University of Georgia just wrapped up a commitment from Lee County pole vaulter Caleb Ebbets, and the way things are looking these days every school in the SEC might be paying attention to the way kids vault in Southwest Georgia.
John Smith, who started pole vaulting at Lee County before transferring to Deerfield-Windsor his senior year and winning the GISA Class AAA state title with a state record jump of 15 feet, has vaulted right into the national collegiate picture.
Smith, a sophomore who signed with Georgia out of DWS two years ago after being named The Herald's Player of the Year for boys track & field, finished second in the SEC Championships this past weekend, clearing just over 17 feet (17-3/4, to be exact). Smith was also the only vaulter from Georgoa at the SEC Championships -- male or female -- to qualify for the regional meet on May 28-29 in Greensboro, N.C.
"It was pretty exciting,'' Smith told The Herald in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon from Athens. "It feels great to do something like that at (the SEC Championships). Going into it, I knew I had a chance of placing. One of my goals was to be in the top five. Once it got down to the last four, my goal was to be in the top three.''
He finished second only to the defending SEC champ, South Carolina's Elliott Haynie, a senior who vaulted 17-3 .
But Smith was beyond proud of his jump of 17 3/4 because it equaled his personal best.
"It gives you a lot to think about,'' Smith said. "It's overwhelming. You get respect without having to say anything. My parents always told me you get respect by your actions not your words.''
Smith gets it naturally.
His father, Lynn Smith, was a pole vaulter in high school.
"I think he won the state title with about a 12-6,'' Smith said.
With his roots digging into the pole vault, Smith was curious early on about the sport, but it wasn't until Craig Rhodes, who was the coach at Lee County at the time, suggested to Smith that he might do well in the pole vault.
Rhodes eventually left Lee County for DWS, where he is still the boys track coach, and Smith followed, spending his senior year at DWS, where he won the state and broke the Class AAA record. Like so many other pole vaulters in this area, Smith became a student and protege of world famous Charlie Polhamus, who won world titles and now coaches from his home-made facility in Fitzgerald.
"We were talking one day and my mom came up with the idea to get in touch with Charlie,'' Smith said. "Charlie had been my dad's coach, but we didn't know if he was still coaching. My dad Googled Charlie and found him (in Fitzgerald), and that's how he became my coach.''
Smith knows he will need a better vault than 17-3/4 to reach the nationals, which will take the Top 12 vaulters from the East regionals and the Top 12 from the West.
"I feel pretty good (going into the regionals),'' Smith said. "I might be getting a different pole so I can get even higher. I'll probably need a 17-5 or 17-6 to get to the nationals. It's doable. I've just got to do it.''