Flying high again; Cedar Ridge’s Fowlkes win 3A State Championship in Pole Vault after jump-off

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Updated: May 21, 2022

It wouldn’t appear to be the most dramatic conclusion to a state championship, but it would be enough to get first place.

At least that’s what Caroline Fowlkes thought on Friday morning after she and West Carteret’s Alyssa Cooley both failed to clear 11-feet in the pole vault. Earlier on Friday morning in the 3A State Track & Field Championships at North Carolina A&T University in Greensboro, Fowlkes successfully sailed over the bar at 10-feet-6 inches in her first attempt. It took Cooley two attempts to get over 10’6″. Since Fowlkes only needed one turn to get over, she figured that was enough for her to take the state championship.

Except it wasn’t that simple.

Shortly after the final failed attempts at 11-feet, a North Carolina High School Athletic Association informed Fowlkes and Cooley that they would engage in a jump-off to decide the state champion.

A jump-off?

Fowlkes had never competed in a jump-off. Heck, she had never even heard of a jump-off.

“It was one of the more nerve-racking meets I’ve ever been in,” Fowlkes said.

Suddenly, things got dramatic.

Fowlkes wasn’t going to let a technicality stop her from a state championship that she was the top-seed in. First, Fowlkes and Cooley each had one attempt at eleven-feet, which neither cleared. Then the height was lowered to 10-feet, 9-inches. Neither cleared that either.

At 10-feet, six-inches, Cooley scratched. It was Fowlkes’ turn, and in the final jump of her Cedar Ridge career, she planted a 12′ 7″, 160-pound pole deep into the pit and sailed over the bar with two inches to spare.

Just like that, Fowlkes became Cedar Ridge’s first individual state champion in track and field in seven years.

“I was so nervous,” said Sasha Morphis, head women’s track and field coach at Cedar Ridge. “When both girls scratched their final jump, we didn’t know how they planned to handle the result. We were on our toes the entire time. I never lost faith in her but I was absolutely nervous. I wanted it so bad for her.”

After word spread of her victory, Fowlkes received a congratulatory text message from Phoenix Smith, a longtime teammate and fellow senior who was unable to compete this spring after she suffered a torn ACL last December.

“I really miss seeing Phoenix at practice,” Fowlkes said. “I wish she could have been at the state championships competing with our team.”

Fowlkes completed her state championship a week after winning the Mideast Regional title at Franklinton High School. She is the first Red Wolf to win an individual state championship in track & field since Kacia Vines won in the long jump in 2015, the last of her two state titles.

Fowlkes is only the second Red Wolf in history to win a state championship at the 3A level. The other five female state champions were in the 2A ranks, along with six male state champions.

“She has been an amazing athlete,” Morphis said. “No matter what you ask her to do, she will do it. She never complains and is one of the most dedicated athletes I’ve ever coached. Working with her has been amazing and I will miss coaching her.”

The progressive heavy metal band Dream Theater’s 24-minute epic “Octavarium” concludes with the theme that “Everything ends where it began.” And so it is with Fowlkes, who last competed at North Carolina A&T on May 17, 2019 as a freshman in the state championships. She reached ten feet, good enough for ninth place.

Between then and Friday, there’s been a pandemic that killed her 2020 outdoor season, struggles with new equipment that led to her failing to qualify for the state championships last year and academic demands that led to her considering sitting out this season.

Fowlkes didn’t compete during Cedar Ridge’s indoor season this winter. With a 4.0 grade point average and a member of the International Baccalaureate Program, Fowlkes has been accepted at Appalachian State University. Under the IBP program doctrine, students take almost all of their exams during their senior year. To alleviate the pressure in the classroom, the possibility of skipping this outdoor season did cross Fowlkes’ mind.

Last year, two accomplished Cedar Ridge runners who were members of a school record relay team opted to focus on academics in lieu of their final track season.

“I was pretty concerned about school and my exams this year,” Fowlkes said. “I wondered if I would have enough time for practice, especially in the spring semester. But it ended up being all right. It was good to have something to do after school after studying for exams.”

Fowlkes finished her exams last week just in time to focus on the state championships.

It turned out to be a wise move. Fowlkes won all nine meets she competed in this year. At the Orange County Championships inside Culton-Peerman Stadium at Chapel Hill High School, Fowlkes finished first at 10’6″. At the Central Carolina Conference Championships in Mebane, she set a personal best at 11’6″, over three-and-a-half feet better than the runner-up.

The previous year, Fowlkes finished with no height at the Mideast Regionals at Southern Lee High School. The main problem was adjusting to a new pole. Pole vaulters are required to weigh-in before competitions. After Fowlkes reached a certain weight, she was required to adjust to a 145-pound pole, which was too small for her taste.

“This year, I was prepared,” Fowlkes said. “I jumped with a 165-pound pole, which was perfect for me. The weight of the pole is how much it takes to bend that pole. If I’m jumping on a 160-or-165-pound pole, I just have to be every fast and extra strong to bend it.”

Fowlkes also competed in the high jump this year. She continued to compete with the Cedar Ridge cross country team last fall.

Fowlkes’ father, Thomas, was a pole vaulter at the University of South Alabama. Her mother, Jenna, was a pole vaulter at the University of Florida.

Caroline would like to continue her pole vault career at Appalachian State, but says the school hasn’t reached out to her yet.

For now, Fowlkes will prepare for graduation next month after winning a state championship in the most unorthodox of ways. In her case, everything truly did end the way it began.

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