In any other year, T.J. Pierce would have had a spot for a kid like Spencer Powell.
But when Pierce, NU’s pole vault coach, got Powell on the phone in 2015, he explained the numbers crunch that could keep Powell from joining the Huskers. Instead he offered the only thing he could.
Powell wasn’t guaranteed a spot, but he was getting a chance.
“He wasn’t even a walk-on, he was a tryout guy,” Pierce said. “He was our version of the dudes who go over to Hawks (Championship Center, the football team’s indoor facility), and they time them in the 40 and do this, that and the other thing. They’re given that ‘Rudy’ tryout.”
Powell, a redshirt sophomore from McCook, Nebraska, has made the most of it, rising from tryout hopeful to solid contributor with hopes of earning All-Big Ten honors this season. He’s one of three Huskers to rank in the Big Ten’s top seven spots in the pole vault this year, joining junior Tyler Loontjer (Geneva, Nebraska) and sophomore Kevin Cahoy (Grand Island) to give NU a trio of native sons who could score team points at next week’s Big Ten indoor championships in Geneva, Ohio.
“The main goal is scoring. It’s just surreal that I’m in the position to score,” Powell said. “But I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself to score because I think I’ll jump better if I just stay relaxed.”
That’s a self-reflection Powell has had to keep in mind as he’s been driven to earn his spot over and over. Powell ruefully recalled taking up the pole vault as a high school freshman as a way to get out of sprinter’s workouts. But he quickly developed an aptitude, winning the Class B state championship as a junior and jumping 15 feet, 9 inches as a senior despite a season shortened by shin splints.
It was enough to gauge interest from some NCAA Division II track programs, but Powell had eyes on becoming a Husker, only to find himself on the wrong side of the numbers game. A decade ago, NU could carry as many walk-ons as they liked. But in recent years, NU head coach Gary Pepin said he faced a directive from the Nebraska athletic department to cap his men’s competition roster to avoid what the department felt could risk Title IX noncompliance.
In 2015, NU already had eight men’s pole vaulters, so if Pierce wanted to add another in Powell, he was going to have to show himself worthy of a roster spot in workouts. The coach promised Powell he would receive the same time in the weight room and attention from the coaches in practice, but the rest was up to him.
“I had faith in God that whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” Powell said. “It’s God’s plan.”
Powell proved to be as fast down the runway as any of NU’s other vaulters and stronger than most. Pierce saw promise in the former high school fullback, who ran for more than 1,000 yards as a senior at McCook, but his pole vaulting technique needed an overhaul.
Pierce worked to get Powell to run more upright on his approach to improve stability, and strengthen his hands when he plants the pole for the jump. In high school, Powell would often have such a loose grip he would allow the pole to hit him in the forehead.
“He’s got a big engine, man. He’s a big dude, and when he gets rumbling down the runway, it’s like a fullback going through the hole,” Pierce said. “Sometimes that was great, but it was a little bit out of control.”
Powell competed unattached during a humbling redshirt season in 2016 in which he failed to match his best high school mark before breaking through in 2017. Last season, he set a new indoor career best at 16-2 ¾, which stood until he cleared 16-7 ½ on Feb. 2, which ties him with Cahoy for the No. 7 mark in the Big Ten. Loontjer leads the group with the Big Ten’s No. 5 mark of 17-1 ½.
“Coming in that freshman year, I went from being the top dog in high school to being at the bottom of the totem pole again,” Powell said. “That’s kind of like a confidence dropper.”
Pierce is hoping Friday’s Nebraska Tune-Up, which starts at noon at the Devaney Center, will serve as a confidence boost to his vaulters ahead of the Big Ten indoor championships.
In pole vault, total number of misses is a tiebreaker in final placings, so clearing early bars without a miss is important. For Friday’s meet, NU will set the preliminary bars higher to mirror the early heights at the conference meet and remove the temptation for vaulters to ease into the competition.
To get an All-Big Ten finish, Pierce said, the Huskers will have to be at their best sooner than they may be used to.
“We throw our guys out into a dogfight like that, I’d like to think the guys from Geneva, Grand Island and McCook are pretty tough customers,” Pierce said. “I’d throw them into that dogfight and bet my money on them.”