ANSONIA – In a barn near Ansonia, friendships are formed and state champions are groomed.
The Ultimate Air pole vault club has made Darke County a growing powerhouse in track and field and created a community that is pushing athletes to even greater heights.
“I always tell people this is the best thing I ever did,” Steve Shellhaas said. “I love the vaults, and I know my kids wanted to jump, but the best thing I did was the club because it makes it fun. This is fun. You see these kids, they’re laughing; they’re buddies. They’re from every school. There’s only a few that are from the same school here, maybe one or two from the same school, but most of these are all different schools, and these are their friends. It’s really neat to see them bond and become close and have a great time.”
Steve Shellhaas owns the barn and coaches Ultimate Air along with Micah Coblentz, who also serves as an assistant track and field coach for Greenville High School.
Since opening the barn about six years ago, their club has attracted vaulters from throughout western Ohio and produced numerous athletes who’ve gone on to compete at state and national competitions and even advanced to the collegiate ranks.
“I think everyone here kind of also inspires each other to do well,” Franklin Monroe’s Selene Weaver said. “Pole vault is such an up-and-down sport. You do good one day, and you do awful the next day. We’re like a family here. To see other people succeed is almost as great as seeing yourself succeed.”
Ultimate Air has approximately 35 members in high school and junior high who come from Darke County and surrounding counties including Auglaize, Mercer, Miami, Preble, Shelby and Warren.
Their training starts in November and continues through July. During the indoor season, Steve Shellhaas estimates that 15 to 20 kids attend each practice, which last for two hours twice a week.
“It just keeps pushing us to all be better, and we’re always constantly trying to be better,” said Brock Shellhaas, an Ansonia vaulter and the son of Steve Shellhaas. “Having us all be there, we’re all knowing that we’ve all put the work in together and we’re trying our hardest to get better with these people.”
The hard work has paid dividends as Ultimate Air vaulters from Ansonia, Franklin Monroe, Greenville, Coldwater, Minster and New Bremen all qualified for the Ohio Association of Track-Cross Country Coaches Indoor State Championships earlier this month. Versailles’ Lucy Prakel and Luke Shellhaas also had marks good enough to qualify for the state meet but couldn’t compete because Versailles High School doesn’t sponsor an indoor track and field team.
“We’re spoiled,” Steve Shellhaas said. “These kids are hard workers. They listen. They’re great kids. I don’t have an issue in the barn. I don’t have an issue with a parent. We are very blessed.”
Ultimate Air’s top performance at the OATCCC Indoor State Championships came from Greenville’s Riley Hunt, who won the Division I girls pole vault competition by clearing 12 feet 6 inches.
“She’s really come on this year,” Coblentz said prior to Hunt’s state championship performance. “It’s been fun. She’s been phenomenal at doing the extra stuff outside of practice to set herself up for success. And just having a good attitude all the time, trying to keep everybody chipper, she’s great to have around. We’re finally starting to dial in the right poles for her.”
This was the first year Hunt competed in indoor track and field, but she’s quickly established herself as one of Ohio’s best.
“Definitely putting in the work and just having a positive attitude and just always being thankful and taking advantage of my opportunities that I have,” she said.
Ansonia’s Brock Shellhaas finished third in the Division II-III boys pole vault, Greenville’s Ryan Trick finished fifth in the Division I boys pole vault, Franklin Monroe’s Weaver finished ninth in the Division II-III girls pole vault, Minster’s Grace Butler finished 10th in the Division II-III girls pole vault, and Coldwater’s Jessica Break finished 13th in the Division II-III girls pole vault.
“You’re jumping with the best in the state,” Brock Shellhaas said. “It proves that you’re jumping at a high caliber level.”
Brock Shellhaas went on to place eighth at the New Balance Nationals Indoor pole vault competition while Trick finished 25th at nationals.
“I’m proud,” Steve Shellhaas said of the success of Ultimate Air’s athletes. “It just shows what hard work does. We’ve been working since November. We opened the barn in November, the first of November, so we’ve been working hard. We’ve been jumping twice a week since November.”
Darke County’s track and field success isn’t limited to pole vault. At the indoor state championships Arcanum’s Tanner Delk finished eighth in the Division II-III boys 3,200 meter run, Arcanum’s Morgan Best finished ninth in the Division II-III girls weight throw, Franklin Monroe’s Weaver finished 17th in the Division II-III girls long jump, Greenville’s Emma Klosterman finished 18th in the Division I girls high jump, and Bradford’s Maia Stump finished 21st in the Division II-III girls long jump.
But pole vaulting has produced more success for the county than other disciplines and built a bond among athletes from schools throughout the region.
“I want it to be fun,” Steve Shellhaas said. “I don’t want it to be work. I want it to be fun, and that’s I think been the secret to the barn is these kids come, they look forward to coming, but they work hard.”
The Ultimate Air facility has grown from a single pole vault pit to two lanes that allow multiple vaulters to train simultaneously, regardless of the weather outside.
“It helps. You’ve got to have a place to jump,” Steve Shellhaas said. “This time of year you’re not jumping anywhere else – 30 degrees and rain you’re not jumping outside. We’re not Florida so we don’t jump outdoors in the winter. The facility definitely gives them the opportunity to be successful.
“As for a 100 foot runway, we’re the only place that you can jump other than Columbus and Fort Wayne. I guess you could go to UC; Cincinnati has it once in a while.”
The barn opens at the beginning of November each year and remains open through the end of July. For nine months each year athletes compete at indoor meets throughout the winter, outdoor meets during the Ohio High School Athletic Association season in the spring and then some fun meets during the summer. But for three months from August through October, Ultimate Air shuts down and athletes are barred from practicing at the facility.
“I shut the barn down in August, September and October, and they go do something else,” Steve Shellhaas said. “I don’t want to see your face. I don’t want to see you around. I want you to go do something different. I like them to kind of have a little bit of another sport, another activity. Clear you mind. Go do something else. Come back and we’ll start hitting it hard again in November. And it’s worked great for us, and I think it’s healthy. I don’t like kids doing sports 12 months a year. I don’t think it’s healthy mentally or physically.
“About end of October I start getting texts like, ‘When are we opening the barn? When’s it coming?’ And that’s what I want. I don’t want them saying like, ‘Oh, man. We’ve got practice again.’ I want them saying, ‘When are we jumping again?’ That’s what I want to see.”
The strategy has worked as evidenced by the school records, state qualifications and college commitments. Greenville alumnus A.J. Frens is currently vaulting at Central Michigan University and Versailles graduate Jenna Frantz, the 2017 OHSAA Division II state champion, competes for the University of Akron. Just this week Trick from Greenville committed to the Bethel College track and field team.
“Props to our coaches Micah Coblentz and Steve Shellhaas and all the other coaches here that help us,” Trick said. “They put in so much time and effort into us. They set us up with all the facilities and poles we need, and that’s just truly a blessing to have. They really are great people even outside of coaching. I can always look up to either one of them if I need help with anything. I can always go to them. They’re always there for us.”
Brock and Steve Shellhaas’ father-son bond has grown even stronger from the time they spend together with Ultimate Air, and they’ve formed an even larger pole vaulting family.
“They’re not only here for two hours twice a week,” Weaver said of the coaches. “They’re here, and they drive four-and-a-half hours like this next weekend to go watch us and coach us.”
Coblentz and Steve Shellhaas have enjoyed seeing their club progress throughout the years and are looking for even more success from the growing Ultimate Air community.
“We’ll coach anybody,” Steve Shellhaas said. “You want to jump, we’ll coach you. It doesn’t matter what school. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. You want to put the work in, we’ll coach you.”
Kyle Shaner may be reached at 937-569-4316. Follow me on Twitter @KShanerAdvocate or get updates on Facebook by searching Darke County Sports or Advocate 360. For more features online go to dailyadvocate.com.