After a dominant indoor track season, which included regional and 4A state pole vault titles and an improvement of more than 2 1/2 feet on his vaults, Perry Hall's David Russell encountered a very stiff challenge in his first outdoor meet:
A stiff wind.
"As hard as I'd try to hit the pit, it was like I was standing still," said Russell, who cleared just 11 feet -- nearly 4 feet shy of his personal best indoors, and almost 3 short of his best outdoors.
"It was like trying to do a balancing act on the pole. No stability whatsoever."
Stability didn't matter much to Russell two years ago, when he "slacked off" in the classroom and failed off the team.
"He was just getting into it," said Perry Hall coach Jerry Martin. "And since athletics is supposed to be a method of getting to some students, I had to try to do all the fatherly things that coaches sometimes need to encourage kids. He was one I was able to reach."
Since then, the senior has maintained a tighter grip on his grades -- as indicated by his 3.0 average and 940 Scholastic Assessment Test score -- and his vaulting pole -- as indicated by his county-record vault of 14 feet, 7 inches.
Frostburg and Towson are among his college choices, and he has designs on majoring in psychology.
"It was just a matter of getting my head together about grades and priorities," said Russell, who stands 5-11 and weighs 145. "It's like vaulting: nothing but a head game. You've got to picture yourself clearing the bar; if you don't, you won't. It's all so clear now what I want to do."
Last spring, Russell earned All-Metro honors after winning county and regional crowns and finishing second in the 4A state meet to Chesapeake-Anne Arundel's Paul Day, whom he'd beaten several times earlier.
Russell soared an outdoors personal-best 13-8 and also was seventh out of 20 competitors at the Penn Relays.
"I saw him at the Penn Relays last year, and his mechanics are excellent," said Gilman coach Johnnie Foreman, host of tomorrow's Gilman Relays, where Russell's toughest challenge should be McDonogh's Sean Sullivan.
Russell has come a long way since his freshman season, when he noticed a sign Martin posted in the locker room to recruit pole vaulters.
"He came out, but at times, I think he wasn't quite sure he could handle it," said Martin of Russell, who lends his talents in the 400 relay, high jump and the 100.
"He's realized he's got a lot of talent, so everything's gone straight up -- literally."
Indoors this past winter, records fell as heavily as Russell does once he's over the bar.
It began at the National Guard Meet, where Russell switched from the 12-foot to the 15-foot pole, clearing 13-6 the first time he used it.
From there, he further honed the mechanics of planting his pole, rocking back and shooting over the bar.
His next best vault (13-7) came at the indoor Baltimore County relays, where he helped the Gators achieve a county record (35-7) as a team.
At a Virginia Tech meet, involving vaulters from Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, he cleared a school-record 14- 1/4 . A week later, he set the county mark of 14-1.
Russell won the regionals at 14-even before cashing in for the 4A state crown at 14-7 -- five inches shy of the state record.
"I felt like I was on a roll, so I tried to get over at 14-10 but couldn't get there," Russell said.
"It's hard to believe that I didn't like this at first: Practicing up at 6 a.m., pulling out the mats and getting the equipment ready. But now, it's all part of the job and an enjoyable routine."