Ex-Warren Central star vaults into spotlight

Published 12:00 am Thursday, April 26, 2001

Matt Fant, who won a state championship at Warren Central, clears the bar at 15 feet in practice on Tuesday. He was to compete in the Region 23 meet in Raymond Thursday. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[04/26/01] During his days at Warren Central, Matt Fant was one of the best pole vaulters in the state. Now, as a sophomore at Hinds Community College, he’s developing into one of the best in the nation.

Fant, who finished second at the national juco meet last year, begins his quest for a national title Thursday at 2 p.m. at the Region 23 meet at Hinds.

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“There should be nothing to it. My teammate is the only person in the state really in competition with me,” Fant said, referring to Jamie Harris. “A lot of times me and him will just jump against each other. We’ll stay out here all day and when he jumps, I’ll jump.”

Fant broke the 14-foot mark during his senior season at WC, and won a state title in 1999 with a vault of 13 feet, 6 inches.

But since he’s been at Hinds, he’s literally taken off. Fant routinely clears 15 feet and expects to break the 16-foot mark by the time this year’s nationals roll around May 10-12 in Odessa, Texas.

“If we get all the techniques right, I think he’s capable of going 15-10 to 16-foot. If he can get everything technically right, he’s got a good chance to vault pretty high,” said Sam Wright, who coaches the Eagles’ field athletes, distance runners and hurdlers.

That should be good enough to win the Region 23 meet, and might just be enough to take the national title. A vaulter from Paradise Valley (Ariz.) Community College, Brandon Bennett, won the indoor national championship and is also in the 16-foot range.

But last year’s outdoor champion, Jason Phelps, also from Paradise Valley, has graduated and gone to the University of Arizona. Phelps beat Fant by clearing 17 feet at the outdoor meet last year, setting a national juco record. Fant vaulted 14-11 at the meet.

“I think we’ve got a real good shot at him possibly winning this thing, but we’re just going to try and play our cards right and see if that puts him right there at the top,” Wright said.

Perhaps the only thing holding Fant back this season is a freak injury that has changed his vaulting style.

During practice last month, Fant’s pole locked up at the top of his vault and he kicked out of it too hard. The kick sent him falling awkwardly to the landing mat, on his head instead of on his back.

He was able to adjust himself in mid-air in time to prevent serious injury, but still suffered a case of whiplash. He has mostly recovered from the injury, but the scare has altered his style and made it a little harder to clear the top heights.

“It’s still affecting me. The top of my vault has changed. I’m not coming off the pole. I’m staying more straight up and kicking back down,” Fant said.

If any of the competitions are close, however, expect Fant to correct things in a hurry. He thrives on pressure, so much that he said he barely gets enthusiastic about smaller meets.

“I do good in big-pressure meets. The little meets, I don’t do that well. I always jump better when I have a little pressure on me. Maybe he’ll (Bennett) crack. I think I beat that guy last year,” Fant said. “Little meets just don’t mean that much to me. I’ve got to have somebody jumping right on my tail, right with me to keep me going.”

Still, the smaller meets are helping him to an even bigger goal a scholarship to a four-year school. Fant, who carries a 3.0 GPA, has won meets at the University of New Orleans and Louisiana-Lafayette this year, and both have offered scholarships. Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss have also shown interest.

Once he gets to the next level, the future is even brighter for Fant. Wright expects him to reach the NCAA qualifying mark of 16-10 next season, and to possibly reach the Olympic trials in time for the 2004 games in Athens, Greece.

“He is really on the verge of being real big, and I think time is going to tell,” Wright said. “And I think by the time he’s a senior, he’s going to have a good chance of qualifying for the Olympic trials in 2004. It’s just going to take the same dedication he’s put in his freshmen and sophomore years here in junior college.”