Story by Rich Fisher | Correspondent
Rarely has something as miserable as a sprained ankle led to something so good.
As a freshman at Notre Dame High School, Lawrenceville, Hayley Horvath competed as an individual gymnast in the NJSIAA Central Jersey sectional meet and took first on beam while qualifying for the state meet in All-Around. But that summer, while doing a Level 9 club meet, Horvath sprained her ankle and missed a month.
“When I got back, it just wasn’t the same,” she recalled. “I stuck with it for a while longer, but in October of my sophomore year, I just quit.”
Photo Gallery: NJSIAA Meet of Champions
While it meant the end of one successful career, Horvath never dreamed it would lead to a record-setting career in track and field. Her friend was a former Irish pole vaulter and suggested that with her gymnastics background, Horvath would be good at pole vault.
She went out for winter track as a sophomore, dedicated herself to it, and on Feb. 24 the senior became pole vault champ at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions at the Bennett Center in Toms River. Horvath went 12 feet, 6 inches on her first jump, while Delsea’s Ashley Preston hit the same mark on her second. Both missed at 13 feet, meaning Horvath won the title on fewer misses.
“Going into the meet, I wasn’t planning on winning,” she said. “There’s a lot of good girls in Jersey, so going into it I wasn’t expecting to win, but I was expecting to do pretty well. I just had a good meet.”
She nearly cleared 13 feet but on her third attempt, nicked the pole enough on the way down to knock it off. Nonetheless, she tied the MOC indoor record at 12-6 after setting three more records earlier in the season.
On Jan. 28, she set the Mercer County Meet and Mercer County all-time indoor record with a 12-4. On Feb. 17, she set the Non-Public A meet record at 12-6. Her efforts have qualified her for the New Balance Nationals at the Armory in New York City March 11.
“Going into counties, I didn’t even know what the meet record was, so I just went and jumped as best as I could, and it ended up being the record,” said Horvath, a Princeton resident and member of St. Augustine of Canterbury Parish, Kendall Park. “I didn’t know about the state record either, but I found out when I was done jumping.”
Despite her records and top seed entering the Meet of Champs, Horvath was still not the favorite.
“She only had the third best jump of the year,” ND coach Joe McLaughlin said. “[Preston and Pascack Valley’s Melissa Purcell] both jumped 12-7 this year. Going into the meet, I thought she’d be clean up through 12-6. I thought it would take somebody to go 13 feet to win it. She’s just been on the past few weeks. I think a lot of it is her confidence.”
It’s confidence that has been building for a while. She used her sophomore year as a learning experience, and it was immediately apparent that gymnastics aided her effort.
“Gymnasts usually have good body strength, have the ability to turn, and they’re not afraid to get upside down and get high in the air,” said McLaughlin, who suffered a mild heart attack Jan. 24 but was amazingly back coaching in three days. “You could tell her very first day she was able to get up off the ground. New girls usually struggle to get the feel for practice, let alone get over the bar. Hayley didn’t clear a height but she was actually getting her feet up over her head the very first day.”
The summer prior to her junior year, Horvath began going to Philadelphia Jumps Club in Conshohocken, Pa., and it paid dividends. Under the tutelage of Brian Moncshein, who tries to make all of Hayley’s major meets, Horvath hit 12 feet and finished second at sectionals, third in states and seventh in the Meet of Champions last spring.
That success carried over to this year and Horvath’s goal for the Nationals is to go 13-2. She is then looking forward to a big spring season. After that, it’s off to Towson University in Maryland, where she will pole vault and possibly do hurdles, which she also does with Notre Dame.
She will do so with a song in her heart. . .and ears.
“I’m usually singing a song before I vault,” she said. “I usually put on head phones before my jumps. Whatever song is on I start to sing it. I don’t really get stressed out about meets. I just try to go out and have a good time.”