Kaitlyn Merritt is back where she belongs, soaring high above the competition.
The senior at Santa Margarita Catholic High School won her third straight girls’ pole vault title April 11 at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational, her winning height of 13 feet 7 inches equaling her state-leading outdoor mark set earlier in this month.
Merritt has been one of the top vaulters in California since her freshman season, when she finished second at the CIF State Championships and won the event the following year. She also set national records for freshmen (13-3) and sophomores (13-8) in her first two years of high school.
But she’s also had to experience the fine line between success and failure in the sport. A misstep on the approach, a change in wind direction or even the wrong pole length or elasticity can throw a vaulter off course more so than any other track and field event.
Merritt experienced that during last season’s run to the state finals, when she failed to clear the opening height of 10-7 on three attempts at the Southern Section Masters Meet, which serves as the section’s qualifying event for the State Championships.
It was the first time Merritt had failed to clear an opening height at a high school meet and left her unable to defend her state title, which was won by Los Gatos High School senior Greta Wagner at 13-1/4, a height Merritt had cleared dozens of times.
Instead of letting the experience leave her with doubts, Merritt said it helped prop her back up.
“I think it made me stronger mentally,” Merritt said. “It was definitely a teaching tool.”
Merritt’s gone back to checking off her goals for her senior year. Winning a third title at Arcadia was on that list, as well as returning to the state finals and winning a second time.
Before heading off to Stanford next fall, Merritt also has a personal goal of clearing 14 feet in a sanctioned high school meet. She went 14-3/4 in a duel meet last season against St. John Bosco, but because St. John Bosco is an all-boys’ school and the Santa Margarita girls competed against themselves that day, it was not considered a recognized mark.
“Even though it doesn’t count, it counts to me,” Merritt said.
Merritt took three runs at 14-1 at the Arcadia Invitational earlier this month and thought she cleared the bar on her final attempt, but it wobbled off the standards. She may get another opportunity at 14 feet Saturday at the Orange County Championships at Mission Viejo High School.
Merritt has won the girls’ pole vault title at the Orange County Championships each of the last three seasons, clearing a meet record 13-9 at last season’s event, which was two feet higher than the next closest competitor. She also hopes to win a Southern Section team title with the Eagles and take a shot at the state crown.
Merritt doesn’t just earn valuable points for the Eagles in the pole vault. She’s one of their top sprinters. Earlier this season, she teamed up with three other girls, including her freshman sister Nicole Merritt, to break the school record in the 400-meter relay at 47.82 seconds.
At the same Trinity League duel meet against Mater Dei, Merritt also won the 100 meters in a wind-aided 12.19 seconds, helping the Eagles defeat the Monarchs for the first time in six years.