Carroll College’s Easton Padden reached new heights Saturday at the NAIA indoor track and field championships with a historic win in the men’s pole vault, adding to a memorable meet for the young Saints.
The junior’s victory in Geneva, Ohio, was a first for the third-year Carroll program at a national championship event.
“That’s something that I will get to say forever, I guess,” said Padden, a 2009 Laurel High graduate. “It hasn’t really set in, what this all means. I am kind of still in the moment. It definitely is a really special feeling. I will have a chance to step back and maybe realize how big this is in a day or two.”
His winning clearance of 17 feet, 0.75 inches matched a career best, which he also posted two weeks ago in Bozeman. Siena Heights’ Richard Depalma placed second at 16-6.75.
It’s Padden’s third All-American performance for Carroll College and his fourth overall. He also achieved the feat once with Hannibal-LaGrange, before transferring to Carroll prior to the 2011-12 school year.
“It was huge for us and for the whole squad,” Carroll assistant coach Harry Clark said of Padden’s championship. “Everybody feeds off each other on this team, so when someone does something like that, it really gets everyone excited. We’re all happy for him.”
His performance Saturday gave Carroll nine All-American performances at the NAIA championships. The top eight finishers in individual events earn the status, while relay teams must finish in the top six.
“The kids competed hard,” Carroll head coach Matt Morris said. “We spread some of them pretty thin and they were tired, but they kept plugging away. I’m really proud of them all as a group.”
The men’s team — responsible for five of the nine All-American finishes — posted 32 points in seventh place. Other All-Americans were freshman Derrick Williams in the mile (third, 4:12.55), freshman Stephen Delaney in the 400 (fourth, 49.56), junior Troy Solly in the 800 (1:54.14) and the men’s distance medley relay team of Lyle Pocha, Delaney, Solly and Williams (second, 9:58.08).
“I couldn’t be more excited for how our team performed,” Padden said. “We have some freaks that run for us, and we’re fortunate to have a bunch of fast kids. They all ran amazing races. It was a big day.”
On the women’s side, the Saints finished with 16.5 points in 16th place, led by three-time All-American Kathleen Mulligan, a sophomore who finished third in the triple jump with a mark of 38-7.
“It’s really exciting, but it’s more exciting to see how everyone else is doing,” Mulligan said. “This was a big meet for the entire program.”
Other All-American performances for the Carroll women Saturday were posted by freshman Bailey Hughes in the mile (fifth, 5:02.37) and freshman Jordan Mathes in the 3,000 (seventh, 10:20.13). Mathes’ high school teammate, Hillary Holt of College of Idaho, won both of those races, anchored the winning distance medley relay team and was named Women’s Outstanding Performer for her efforts. The seventh-place finish for Mathes, a Mountain View High (Meridian, Idaho) graduate, makes her a two-time All-American for the Saints after she earned the honor in cross country in November.
On Friday, Marisa Arnseson earned All-American honors with a fifth-place finish in the women’s pole vault at 11-11.75.
“We’re young and we talked about getting here and being competitive,” Morris said. “Eventually, we would like to get back and stand on the podium with a team trophy. That’s our goal.”
While the Saints are making their way toward the top as a program, Padden took a circuitous route to the top as an individual.
As a sophomore at Laurel, he finished with a season-best of 11-0. A year later, he cleared 13-0. Padden added another foot onto his personal best as a senior, clearing 14-0 to win the Top 10 meet and place fourth at the 2009 Class A state championship meet. His high school best ranks second on Laurel’s all-time top 10 behind the school record of 15-6, set by Steve McMorris in 1988.
Padden, who also placed fourth at 152 pounds in the 2009 state wrestling tournament, harbored dreams of vaulting for the University of Montana at the NCAA Division I level and headed to Missoula in the fall of 2009 with the intention of joining the track and field team as a walk-on. But he soon learned he was short a couple core credits from high school and wasn’t academically eligible to compete for the Grizzlies.
“I sat out and it was a hard,” he said last year. “I went to school to get eligible, and I lifted and ran on my own. I intended to get everything sorted out so I could join the team the next year.”
But Padden changed course after he attended a pole vaulting camp with a friend from Hannibal, Mo., during the summer of 2010. He enrolled at Hannibal-LaGrange and made an immediate impact with the Trojans, qualifying for the NAIA indoor championships in 2011 with a clearance of 15-5, then placing 13th at the national meet at 14-9. During that outdoor season, he improved to 16-0.75 for a fifth-place showing at NAIA finals.
A Montanan at heart, Padden decided to return to Big Sky Country in the summer of 2011 and transferred to Carroll, a school that didn’t have a track and field program when he graduated from high school two years earlier.
His rise continued last winter when he placed second at the NAIA indoor championships for the Saints with a clearance of 15-11 and tied for fifth outdoors with a mark of 16-0.75. He also increased his personal best to 16-8.75.
Over the summer, Morris hired Clark, who has worked closely with the Saints’ star. On Saturday, Padden cleared 16-0.75, 16-6.75 and 17-0.75 without a miss. He then missed all three attempts at 17-4.5, but the competition was already decided.
“With no misses at the first three heights like that, that’s almost unheard of,” Clark said. “He was close on his last attempt at the final height.
“I think the biggest thing we worked on this year was his approach. He’s a lot faster and a lot more powerful on the runway, and it goes right into his vaulting.”
Padden said he and his coach made a last-minute decision to start with a bigger pole than usual and the choice paid off.
“Things clicked the way I hoped they would, even though we made a pole change,” Padden said. “I was feeling really good and was hoping to clear that next height, but I’m still really happy. I was surprised the other guy didn’t make 17, because I know he’s capable of it. When he missed on his third attempt, it was a big relief.”
Looking back on his ride to the top, Padden said he never dreamed he would get this far back when he was a Laurel Locomotive.
“I had no idea I would be here of all places or that I would have this kind of success,” he said. “It’s really exciting.”
Now, Padden and Clark hope to set the bar higher with a goal of 18 feet. If he achieves that, Padden would become the all-time top Montanan in the event. East Helena native Brian Schweyen, who directs the University of Montana track and field program, currently holds that honor with a best of 17-6, Clark said.
“Eighteen feet is the target,” Clark said. “I think he can go there and he wants to go there, so that’s where we’ll go.”
Soon after Padden claimed his championship, Williams anchored the Saints to second place in the men’s distance medley relay. The time of 9:58.08 is a school record, and it was set by four runners who had already raced in individual events. Southern Oregon, meanwhile, won in a meet-record 9:48.16 with four relay specialists.
Pocha, who placed 10th in the open mile to miss out on individual All-American honors by two spots, opened for the Saints with a time of about 3:03 in the 1,200. Delaney then took the baton for 400 meters in roughly 48 seconds and handed off to Solly, who ran his 800 leg in about 1:53. That’s when Williams took over in good position and ran the final 1,600 meters in roughly 4:10, but he had to outlean College of Idaho’s Greg Montgomery at the finish line to sneak in at second place. C of I finished in 9:58.10.
Williams, who was a standout runner at Columbia Falls before arriving on Carroll’s campus last fall, ran a personal best of 4:12.34 in the mile prelims and barely missed setting another best in the final at 4:13.55. Even so, it was a memorable day for the rookie as he finished behind Oklahoma Baptist’s Adam Godwin (4:10.84) and Cornerstone’s Louis Falland (4:12.18).
“There are a lot of people who believe in me and I think placing third in the mile as a freshman means I can finally really start believing in myself,” Williams said. “That proves to me I can do it. Coach Morris, my parents, my friend Clint Morrison, they always told me I could go fast. I am excited to see what the future holds.”
So is Morris.
“Derrick is such a coachable kid and such a team player,” the coach said. “You can’t take too much credit with a guy like Derrick, because he’s just so talented. You just take them to meets and enjoy watching them run.”
Williams said all four runners on the relay team were tired before the race even started.
“We didn’t feel great during warmups, but we decided we would give it everything we had, and I am super proud of everyone,” he said. “I think every one of us left every bit of energy we had left out on the track.”
Carroll’s other third-place finisher was Mulligan, who also stars for the Saints’ volleyball program. She placed fifth at indoor nationals last year and was runner-up outdoors. On Saturday, her mark of 38-7 was within two inches of a national championship and less than an inch away from second place. Hastings’ Courtney Mills won at 38-9 and Campbellsville’s Keisha Chiles was second at 38-7.5.
“That was a little disappointing to come so close, but I think it’s really good to have this feeling going into outdoors,” Mulligan said. “I know what I have to work on. On my last jump, I had a good one going, but I just couldn’t hold on to the jump.”
Delaney ran into a little trouble on the way to his fourth-place finish in the 400 as two runners fell down in front of him, but a day after getting a spike to the quad, the freshman expertly navigated the chaos and continued on toward the finish line. While he was pleased with his own performance, he echoed the sentiments of his teammates — team pride.
“I really didn’t know what to expect for myself to be honest,” he said. It was a great feeling to do so well in the 400 and in the relay, but I am just privileged to be on a great team and to be part of such a great program at Carroll.”
And regarding Carroll’s first national champion, Delaney was simply happy for Padden, who Morris said has become the team’s leader.
“It’s so awesome seeing Easton do that,” Delaney said. “He’s our leader and seeing him win the first national championship for Carroll is huge for our program. He’s the role model for the entire team, so it was great to see him up at No. 1 on the podium.”
Oklahoma Baptist swept the team titles as the men posted 86.5 points to hold off Wayland Baptist (70) and Indiana Tech (68), and the women finished with 113 to blow away Indiana Tech (87) and Oregon‘s Concordia (61).
Other competitors for Carroll who competed Saturday were sophomore Shelby Sweeny (3,000, 10th, 10:28.51), sophomore Hannah Hafner (5,000, 12th, 18:20.67), freshman Josh Seeberger (pole vault, 15th, 15-1) and sophomore Ashley Medeiros (shot put, 22nd, 39-0.5). The women’s distance medley relay team of Hughes, Mallery Knoll, Sandy Torres and Mathes placed eighth in 12:14.91.