Joe Burkett knew for a while the pole vault was going to be his place on the track.
Burkett grew up in the shadows of the Jefferson City High School pit, where his father, Eric, would work during the Capital City Relays. Eric is a former Helias pole vaulter himself, and Joe would tag along to the meets and help catch poles.
The event worked its magic on Joe, a junior at Jefferson City. He began to see progress and started making regular trips to Just Vault in Kansas City. Just Vault is an indoor pole vault facility run by former Baylor All-American Todd Cooper. The instruction of Cooper and Jefferson City track coach Scott Gschwender helped propel Joe to a fourth-place finish at last year’s Class 4 state meet at 15 feet, 3 inches. He quickly followed that with a PR height of 15-9 at the Jr. Olympic regional meet.
“State was a lot of fun, and it was exciting,” Joe said. “It felt like that day I was doing everything right, but I could’ve been a little bit better.
“I’m getting pointers from each (coach). With Cooper it’s the run and takeoff, and with Gschwender it’s what happens after I leave the ground. Both have come together to make good things happen.”
A couple trips to Kansas City to work with Cooper helped Joe focus on his steps at the beginning of the approach and to keep his hands high during takeoff. Those little tweaks paved the way for the PR jump.
“We’re usually on the same page on terminology and what we’re trying to instruct him,” Gschwender said. “We try to eliminate that during meets. Pole vault is a difficult event, and you can only concentrate and focus on one thing.”
Joe has started right where he left off last year. He cleared a season-best 15-5 ¾ at the MU Relays, and he recently set the Holt Invitational meet record at 15-0.
This year Joe also added the discus for a rare combination of field events. Throws coach Gary Ferguson approached Joe at the beginning of the season to see if he was game for the challenge, and Joe has been able to make some quick strides to add depth to the team. He threw a PR of 130-4 at Holt for second place. He even sees some payoff for helping his pole vault.
“I guess (it helps) upper-body strength; I think they go hand-in-hand,” Joe said. “I’m mainly just trying to help out the team and get the most points I can.”
Gschwender said Joe will continue to throw the discus and run on one of the sprint relays to bolster the team’s ability to score points all season.
Gschwender credits the fast start on Joe maturing as an athlete. Joe, who has a verbal commitment to play linebacker at Missouri, started this spring bigger and faster than he was as a sophomore. Gschwender also said they have addressed his plant, and they anticipate a couple more small fixes that will take Joe even higher.
Even though Joe doesn’t realize it, MTCCCA Hall of Fame coach Dennis Licklider has his fingerprints all over the Jays’ pole vaulting success. While the retired Licklider has remained hands off in coaching his best-known discipline, Gschwender said Licklider is still a major influence in what the vaulters do.
“I know he wouldn’t ever take credit for – he’s a behind-the-scenes guy in this – but Dennis is a big part of this,” Gschwender said. “Everything I know came from Dennis.”
As Joe continues to improve and eyes the Jeff City school record of 15-7 ¼, he also wants to improve upon his state finish. Joe, the top returning all-state vaulter, has heights he hasn’t even attempted yet while he still jumps on his 15-3, 190-pound pole.
“He has two (bigger) poles he hasn’t even touched yet,” Gschwender said. “When his body is ready, it should be exciting. In meets he’s a freight train. Most of the time his standards are buried … he never jumps under 25, which means he gets complete penetration into the pit and is safer.”