May 16, 2012

John Oberg keeps Raiders vaulting high

Sports Columnist

His name was Jude Sangillo and he was Lower Cape May’s pole vaulter in 1997.

Why is he the answer to a trivia question? Because he was the last pole vaulter not from Ocean City High School to win the Cape May County championship.

A big reason for that success is John Oberg, the volunteer OCHS pole vaulting coach. Since Oberg began working with the Ocean City vaulters, the Raiders are 15-0 in the county meet, 24-0 if you count the girls pole vault.

“He has been a great part of our program,” said Ocean City coach Matt Purdue. “We think he might be the best pole vault coach in the state. He’s done a great job with our vaulters but he also helps out kids on other teams, too. Its remarkable the number of state finalists he’s coached.”

For Oberg, it all started with Jon Howell, who won the county title three times (1998-2000) and set an OCHS record (14 feet, 6 inches) that still stands. The next two years it was Dan Tamburini, then Tom Tyrrell. In 2004, his son, John, became the OCHS vaulter and he won the county title three times. After that came Steele Nugent, Mike Coletta and Ryan Mazzeo. Coletta set the county meet record that was broken last week by Ed Albright. In between Mazzeo and Albright was Mike Oberg, who was county champion twice.

On the girls side, Lindsay Zwiebel was county champion in 2004, Ali Decredico won the next three years, Laurie Vogel the next three and Maryanna Oberg has won the last two.

“We’ve been lucky,” Oberg said, underestimating his influence. “We’ve had some good athletes and they were willing to listen and work hard.”

Oberg himself was a pole vaulter at Delsea Regional High School. He went to the University of Delaware to play football but couldn’t continue vaulting because of spring football practice. He and his father, the legendary Delsea football coach, were later part of Gary Degenhardt’s football staff at OCHS.

The pole vault looks so difficult to the observer. You need quickness, upper body strength and quite a bit of body control. “It’s just a sport,” said Oberg, “like any other event. You have to hold a golf club a certain way. You need to grip the basketball the right way when you shoot it or hold your hands a certain way to catch a football. Well, in the pole vault, there are certain things you need to do.”

The thing that makes the pole vault that much more challenging at the high school level is most of the athletes have no experience at all when they become freshmen. In fact, Mazzeo and Coletta started vaulting as seniors, Tyrrell as a junior and Albright, who should be one of the favorites in the upcoming NJSIAA meets, started as a sophomore.

“They don’t do the pole vault at the middle school level,” said Purdue. “Very few of the kids who could vault are strong enough at that age to bend the pole. So, when John gets them, they are starting from scratch.”

“If they can run,” Oberg said, “they can probably learn to vault. It is important that they be able to get some speed going.”

Some things have changed during Oberg’s 15 years of coaching.

“The equipment has changed a lot since I started. The poles are a lot better. They were fiberglass for a long time and now the carbon poles are so light. But they are also expensive.”

And high school budgets often don’t allow for too many poles at $700 a pop.

“John has spent so much time with our pole vaulters,” said Purdue. “He really cares deeply about their success and his approach is so positive. But he has also spent a ton of money – his own money – on equipment. He has paid thousands of dollars on poles for the kids.”

There are very few skill coaches in any Cape-Atlantic League sport with a record that compares to Oberg’s. The only one that comes to mind is Mainland’s football kicking coach, Jim Cooper. He invests time (and money) in the student-athletes at Ocean City High School and has produced automatic points for Matt Purdue’s track team.

John Oberg has created one of the Raiders greatest success stories.

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