Facing the prospect of trying to compete against pole vaulters from Power Five programs like Baylor, Georgia and LSU at the NCAA championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field in Eugene June 9-12, Towson junior Hayley Horvath said she plans to combat any nervousness with a few simple words to herself.
“I just need to remind myself that I’m there for a reason and that I just deserve to be there,” she said.
Similarly, Mount St. Mary’s graduate student Brian Sagendorf said the onus is on him to prove himself in the javelin throw against peers from Mississippi State, Kansas State and Auburn.
“I belong with all of the other studs in the javelin throw,” he said. “It’s just time for me to show them who Brian Sagendorf is.”
Reaching this stage is already an achievement for Horvath and Sagendorf, who are the first athletes from their schools and in their respective events to qualify for the NCAA finals. Horvath cleared 4.27 meters (14 feet) to finish fourth in the pole vault at last week’s NCAA East Preliminaries at North Florida’s Hodges Stadium in Jacksonville, and Sagendorf threw for 71.67 meters (235 feet, 2 inches) to place 10th in the javelin.
They will be joined by three more athletes from area programs. Coppin State senior Joseph Amoah will participate in the 100, 200 and 400 relay, while Maryland will be represented by junior Kaithon McDonald in the high jump and sophomore Caleb Dean in the 400 hurdles.
Here is a look at how Horvath and Sagendorf’s paths have led them to the NCAA championships:
‘Oh, why not?’
After spending years developing into a Level 9 gymnast (Level 10 is the final ranking before Elite status, which is reserved for Olympic and world-class gymnasts), Horvath lost her passion for the sport and was eager for a change.
“I kind of just sat home for months, and my mom told me that I needed to do something,” she said. “She didn’t care what I did. I knew one of the pole vaulters on my high school team, so I was like, ‘Oh, why not?’”
After winning New Jersey and Meet of Champions titles in the pole vault in both indoor and outdoor track and field as a senior, Horvath — who turns 21 on June 25 — made an immediate impression with the Tigers as a freshman in 2018-19. She broke the indoor school record by clearing 4.00 meters (13 feet, 1 ½ inches) at the Eastern College Athletic Conference championships and then did the same with the outdoor mark by vaulting over 4.10 meters (13 feet, 5 ¼ inches) at the Colonial Athletic Association championships.
This spring, Horvath set another outdoor record of 4.27 meters at the CAA championships, which she later matched at the NCAA East Preliminaries. She said that clearing that height at the conference meet was tinged with a little more emotion.
“The week before conferences, I jumped 4.26, which is 13-11 ¾, and that didn’t really sit well with me because I wanted that quarter of an inch,” she said. “So at conferences, that was my main goal, to get 14 feet. Going into regionals, I didn’t honestly care what I jumped as long as qualified for nationals. I needed to jump whatever I needed to do to get into that Top 12 [to qualify for the NCAA Finals].”
Towson coach Mike Jackson said Horvath’s greatest strength is her inability to get flustered, which he noticed when an airplane transporting the team to the Florida Relays in Gainesville in March 2019 lost the poles in transit. Horvath simply borrowed a pole from a competitor and placed seventh.
“She is so ice cold,” he said. “She just doesn’t get too high or too low about anything. She does not show very much emotion. So I think her expectations of herself are to win. I know she believes in herself, and she feels she is capable.”
‘Everything happens for a reason’
Sagendorf took up cross country and then indoor track and field as a freshman at Union Catholic Regional High School in Scotch Plains, New Jersey, to stay in shape for tryouts for the baseball team. But after enjoying some success in indoor, he joined the outdoor team.
“I thought, ‘You know what, I can always come back to baseball,’” he said. “Everything happens for a reason.”
Recruited as a decathlete, Sagendorf’s freshman year ended in the spring of 2016 after tearing the meniscus in his right knee, which sidelined him through the indoor season. But at the Penn Relays in April 2017, he tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, resulting in Tommy John surgery and forcing him to sit out the entire 2017-18 year.
Sagendorf, now 24, remained uncowed. “I believed in myself. I believed I could be a 70-meter thrower. I had all of the right people in my corner to help me through the recovery process. They saw so much potential in me that I couldn’t stop. I just had to fight through the pain.”
Less than two weeks after setting a personal best with a throw of 68.19 meters (223 feet, 9 inches) at the Eastern College Athletic Conference, Sagendorf bettered that mark by more than 3 meters at the NCAA East Preliminaries. He had qualified for the preliminaries in 2016 and 2017, but could not participate due to the aforementioned injuries.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “We’ve always talked about what we can do to make me the best athlete I can be. It’s a high honor being in the Top 24 in the NCAA. That’s no joke. But at the same time, I’m not done yet. I can keep fighting and hopefully I can make that Top 8 and be a first-team All American. That’s the main goal. I’m just seeing all this progress that I’ve made since high school, and it’s just that fight and determination in me. I love it.”
Mountaineers coach Jim Stevenson, who returned to the university in 2019 after a four-year hiatus, affectionately called Sagendorf “Bionic Brian” before lauding his ability to rebound from his injury-riddled history.
“I think it’s a testament to his perseverance and his endurance,” he said. “If you have those two major injuries during your career, it could go several ways, but he was always focused forward, and that take a lot of courage to keep rolling forward in spite of those things. Maybe that’s why little Mount St. Mary’s is on the biggest stage in track and field right now.”
Sagendorf, who graduated last year with bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and sociology and is pursuing a third degree in human services, said he views the NCAA Finals as his last hurrah.
“You’re going to look at all of these other guys at the NCAAs who are 6-3 and 220 pounds of just pure muscle,” said the 5-foot-8, 170-pound Sagendorf. “It’s almost like a David and Goliath story. It’s just me being me.”
Although Horvath has two more years of eligibility, she is taking a similar approach to Sagendorf.
“The goal is to always get back, but you never know what can happen,” she said. “At regionals, if you have a bad day, you’re not going to make it. Ideally, it’s an awesome experience, and I’m going to take everything I can to learn from it, and I am going to have the hope that however I do this year, I can go back and do better than I did this year. but there’s also no guarantee that I’m going next year. So I want to take advantage of this opportunity now.”
Baltimore-area athletes competing in the NCAA track and field finals
Coppin State’s Joseph Amoah — 100-meter and 200-meter dash
Maryland’s Caleb Dean (DeMatha Catholic) — 400-meter hurdles
Towson’s Hayley Horvath — pole vault
Maryland’s Kaithon McDonald (South Hagerstown) — high jump
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Mount St. Mary’s Brian Sagendorf — javelin