Dennis Phillips in front of pole vault pit at home
Dennis Phillips poses for a photo in front of the pole vault pit in his backyard. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

In 1988 when Paul Mariman led the Warriors’ track and field program and Oregon State dropped the sport for financial reasons, the former pole vault coach with the Beavers volunteered to work with Philomath High athletes as a volunteer assistant.

Prior to this season, 75-year-old Dennis Phillips decided it was time to step away.

“It pretty much starts in March and goes all the way until August and I’ve been doing that forever,” Phillips said. “I just decided that with all of the things that were happening that this is probably the right time. I’m 75, I’ll be 76 in July, and my wife retired so we could do things. Pole vaulting was always in the mix and if there was a track meet, you can’t go and do other things. Yeah, it’s time to just give it up.”

Few pole vault coaches at the high school level have experienced the type of success that Phillips did over his 34-year run in the position.

“Very dependable coach … over 30 years, he’s produced great vaulters for us,” longtime PHS coach Joe Fulton said. “I think we’re second all-time in the state for points scored in that event after Marshfield.”

Phillips’ accomplishments as a pole vault coach are staggering. For the boys, Philomath has had 14 athletes clear 13 feet, five others go over 14 feet and two clear 15 feet.

“There’s probably a lot of schools whose school record isn’t even 14 feet and we’ve had nine total that have jumped that and he coached all but two of those athletes,” Fulton said.

The two vaulters that cleared 15 feet were Phillips’ son, Matt, who went 15-1 to break a 26-year-old school record in 1996, and then Isaac Manning, who bettered the school record in 2015 when he cleared 15-4.

Dennis Phillips served as an assistant track and field coach for the Warriors for xx years. (Photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

Phillips has been the only girls’ pole vaulting coach that the school’s known. Seventeen girls have gone over 9 feet, seven over 10 feet and two over 11 feet.

“I imagine there’s plenty of schools that don’t have a single girl that has ever jumped over 9 feet and we’ve had 17 and he coached every one of them,” Fulton said. “One of those, Erica Boren, went on to make the U.S. Olympic team in the pole vault. She’s now a coach at Washington State.”

Boren, who is now Erica Fraley, competed in the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. She was one of the two athletes who cleared 11 feet at PHS with a jump of 11-1 in 1998. Rachel Seagren broke Boren’s school record by 1 inch in 2015.

Coming from OSU in 1988, Phillips filled a need with the Warriors track and field program as a volunteer assistant and roughly a decade later, he became a paid assistant under Fulton.

“It’s been enough to buy a few poles here and there, you know, because poles just break,” Phillips said. “We probably averaged one to two poles broken the whole time I’ve been there and some years, I’ve had three to four broken. It depends on the kids.”

Through his nearly 3-1/2 decades of coaching the high school pole vault, Phillips said his greatest satisfaction came down to watching the athletes improve.

“You get a kid out there who really wants to do it and they just improve,” he said. “That’s the joy of it all — to see them just keep getting better.”

The common denominator with the top vaulters was the willingness to put in the work to get better.

“I usually had a summer program where I jumped all summer with the kids and went to all-comers’ meets,” Phillips said. “Those kids that had that determination — pretty much all of them were good. All of the people that went to state, most of them jumped all year round.”

Eventually, coaching rules changed so that Phillips was limited to working with only two athletes during specific times during the offseason.

“That’s what we did for the last few years,” Phillips said. “Before that, we could just jump all the time, you know, there were no rules about that and no rules about when you could or couldn’t jump — it was pretty much up to me.”

The anatomy of a successful pole vaulter features several components.

“Getting the steps right, learning each time you go back another couple of steps everything changes — the amount of speed makes it so you have to plant faster and the timing gets different,” Phillips said. “So you’re always changing timing as you get further and further, a longer, longer run. The more air time — that’s what I call it — the more time you spend running down the runway and jumping into the pit, the better you get.”

Beyond the mechanics, Phillips pointed to safety as the top responsibility of his coaching.

“Safety is by far the No. 1 thing and they make us take a course — it’s about liability — and you can be a volunteer coach or an assistant coach or a head coach and you have to take that,” Phillips said. “It’s a big, thick book and after you learn that, you’re really aware of the liability and the safety and how important that is in a lot of ways — for the kids, for you and so you have to kind of follow that idea of safety first. That’s all there is to it.”

As far as injuries, Phillips said the most dangerous situation involves when a jumper takes off in the wrong place and falls backward onto the runway. Injuries can also happen when a pole breaks, although that’s uncommon. And going completely over the pit is a dangerous situation.

“You just start slow and you just slowly learn how to control yourself — it’s just a learning process,” he said. “A lot of learning to pole vaulting.”

The pole vault pit in his backyard had once been used by Oregon State before the program disbanded in the 1980s. After sitting under the bleachers on campus for a few years, the pit ended up at Philomath High for several years. He now uses it at home to maintain his level of skill in the event.

Dennis Phillips clears 17 feet during the Pacific-8 Track and Field Championships in May 1967 at Hayward Field in Eugene. This photo, shot from the stands by Hal Holman, son of Medford Mail Tribune photo department manager Larry Holman, hangs on the wall in Phillips’ home. (Photo by Hal Holman)

Phillips continues to compete in summer all-comers meets and master meets as one of the top competitors in his age group. He no longer travels to national meets and focuses on regional events that are within driving distance, mostly Eugene and Portland. Last year, he competed in the Oregon Senior Games that were staged in Corvallis.

“A lot of the other ones were canceled because of COVID,” Phillips said. “There should be a few more this year but we’ll wait and see what happens.”

Phillips has lived an incredible life as a successful competitive pole vaulter. He can share story after story about his highs and lows in the sport from his college days at Oregon State to his professional jumping period in the 1970s to his adventures in the years since in master meets.

The height of his career as a young man came 5-1/2 decades ago with a Pac-8 Conference title, an indoor national championship and an OSU record vault of 17-1 in 1967. He had a shot at making the Olympic team in 1968 but during the trials in Los Angeles, he broke both of his poles and finished fifth competing with borrowed ones.

Phillips went pro and competed in the International Track Association in meets around the world until age 29. The responsibilities of family life took hold at that point and his path as a competitor went in a different direction.

These days, he mainly continues to vault for the fun of it.

“Competing against the guys — we have a group of guys around here; we’re all master jumpers and we compete against each other,” Phillips said. “So that’s good enough and whoever wins, it’s ‘yeah!’”

Phillips said he’ll continue to jump “until I can’t.”

Brad Fuqua, Philomath News

Brad Fuqua has covered the Philomath area since 2014 as the editor of the now-closed Philomath Express and currently as publisher/editor of the Philomath News. He has worked as a professional journalist since 1988 at daily and weekly newspapers in Nebraska, Kansas, North Dakota, Arizona, Montana and Oregon.