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Ashley pole vaulters flying higher

Ashley pole vaulter Heather Keck attempts to clear 9 feet, 6 inches at the New Hanover County track and field championships at Ashley on Wednesday, April 23, 2014. (Photo by Matt Born)

Bruce Kopka had no choice.

As a sophomore, the Ashley High School pole vaulter had already tied the school record at 12 feet, 6 inches. What would he do as an encore during his junior year?

Kopka's father, Keith, had the answer. And it was one his son didn't want to hear.

"I was like, ‘So, I've got senior year to hit 13, right?' " Bruce said. "He was like, ‘No, you don't. You have this year.' "

In high school, Keith set his school's record, also at 12-6. Bruce knew that, yet still asked why he had to break the record as a junior.

"He was like, ‘I was 17 when I set the record,' " Bruce said with a laugh.

When Bruce cleared 13 feet last season, Keith was watching. He was a proud father and a proud coach. Since Bruce's freshman year at Ashley, Keith had served as the team's pole vaulting instructor.

Keith's death in March from complications related to ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, left the Screaming Eagles saddened. It did not change the group's resolve to still be the best vaulting program in the area.

"It was tough, but a new coach means new opportunities to learn new things," junior Heather Keck said.

Former UNCW pole vaulter Colton Weaver has inherited a program with gifted athletes with a well-established understanding of the sport. His job has been fine tuning and adding to their knowledge base.

Led by Kopka and Keck, the Eagles have been strong all season. Wednesday was no different as the duo won the boys and girls pole vaulting events at the New Hanover County championships. Kopka cleared 12 feet to take the boys crown, while Keck finished at 9 feet.

Before offering any insight to his new athletes, Weaver watched everyone compete at a meet and during practice. He took notes, then began working to help them get better. He's installed drills to improve timing and discussed strategy on how to approach jumps.

"I'm lucky to have this crew. They listen and that's nice," Weaver said.

After his father's death, Bruce took some time off from vaulting. He was still at practice, serving as a student coach, but he just needed a few days away to regroup.

"If (Keith) were here he would have told me to suck it up and go out there," Bruce said.

On Bruce's cell phone, he has a video of himself clearing 15 feet during a practice session. Despite the loss of his coach and father, his work ethic, along with that of his teammates, is still strong. That's something Keith Kopka helped instill in the program. And it has not changed.

"There's definitely more to be got," Bruce said.