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Senior year was a dream season for Evers

Barry McNamara
06/08/2018
A lot changed for Dan Evers from his team photo as a freshman to his senior year shot.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – As Dan Evers grew taller and stronger, his pole-vaulting dreams grew bigger.

The recent Monmouth College graduate realized several of those dreams during an outstanding senior season, which he concluded May 30 by winning his second national championship in three months.

At the NCAA Division III Outdoor Track and Field Championships in La Crosse, Wis., Evers cleared a school-record 17-feet 8-1/2 inches to defeat six-time national champion Luke Winder of North Central (Ill.) College. Winder won the NCAA indoor and outdoor pole vault titles in 2015 through 2017. (He missed the 2018 indoor meet because of an injury.)

With the two national titles in 2018, Evers joins an exclusive group of two-time national champions at Monmouth that includes pole vaulter Jonny Henkins ’08 and long jumper James Wilson ’16.

Starting small

When Evers entered Monmouth College from Kaneland High School in Maple Park, Ill., he wasn’t thinking about reaching the top of the list of Fighting Scots pole vaulters, let alone the top of NCAA Division III.

“I didn’t expect much,” said Evers, who as a freshman stood 5-foot-6 and weighed 115 pounds. “I thought, ‘Let’s just improve every year.’ My dad and I talked about it, and we thought it would be good if I could vault in the 15-foot range throughout college.”

Evers’s personal record at Kaneland was 13-feet 9 inches. Then Evers began to see that even more was possible when he vaulted 14-feet 10 inches as a freshman. He also grew four inches and gained 20 pounds. (He has since topped out at 6-1, 170 pounds.)

“That first summer after my freshman year, Coach (Roger) Haynes told me to hit the weight room,” said Evers. “I was working at a forest preserve, and I had a buddy who worked there, too. He would just kick my butt in the weight room, but I kept grinding. And that’s when I began to think that making nationals might be a possibility. It takes right around 16 feet to do that.”

Gaining momentum

Evers crossed the 16-foot threshold as a sophomore, qualifying for the indoor and outdoor national meets. He placed sixth in both to earn the first two of his six All-American honors. A year later, he improved to second in the nation indoors and third outdoors.

The stakes changed when he entered his senior season.

First was a goal of winning a national title. Evers realized that in March, with Winder on the sidelines.

“He had already hit 5.35 meters (17-feet 6-1/2 inches) in January, which is a huge bar,” said Evers. “But then he broke his thumb. No one wants to see that, but I knew I had a big chance. I wasn’t happy he wasn’t competing, but I worked my butt off, and I had a very successful indoor season.”

A huge bar, plus a big hurdle

The outdoor season presented an opportunity to beat Winder head-to-head or at least, as Evers said, “give him a run for his money.” It also presented Evers a huge bar of his own to clear – 18 feet.

“I knew outdoors Luke would be back,” he said. “My thought going in was ‘What can I do personally?’ I was looking to improve myself, but then came the foot trouble.”

Evers thinks he might have tweaked his foot at a rainy meet in St. Louis. He then injured it worse at a mid-April meet in Greenville, Ill.

“It put a huge damper on the season, but I hit the rehab really hard,” said Evers.

Evers wanted to continue vaulting in meets, including a pair hosted by Monmouth, but he had to be talked out of it by Haynes and athletic trainer Bob Foster.

“I was so mad that I couldn’t compete – I was really upset,” said Evers. “But we did what had to be done. Coach Haynes and Bob were both really helpful in getting me back to where I could compete.”

Evers did not vault again until the Midwest Conference Championships in mid-May, also hosted by Monmouth. He won the event, then skipped out on last-chance qualifier meets, as he was already solidly in the NCAA field.

Evers vs. Winder

At the national meet, the foot troubles flared again, to the point that Evers thought he might have to “shut things down.”

“On Wednesday, my foot swelled up crazy bad,” said Evers, who competed three days later on a Saturday. “I could barely walk for a while.”

In a normal week, Haynes said Evers would vault three times, including competition. Since the Greenville meet, he had only vaulted a total of five times in five weeks.

“It was a pleasant surprise that he was able to vault so well,” said Haynes. “It’s a testament to his physical condition. Some of it is carryover from how fit he is, but it’s also the ability to perform under pressure and use the adrenaline of the moment.”

Adding to the challenge was that Winder showed he had fully recovered from his injury. He cleared 18-feet, 4 inches at his last-chance meet, setting the all-time Division III record.

“He’s just a helluva athlete and has had such an amazing career,” said Evers.

With Evers’ injury and Winder’s return to form, Evers said he “didn’t have the highest of expectations for the meet.”

“Anytime you’re the Illinois high school state record-holder and come from such a distinguished line of competitors – his father, who’s a track coach at North Central, and his two brothers were all great vaulters – you’ve got something special,” said Haynes of Winder. “Luke was going for his seventh national title and is a great competitor.”

‘I’m back’

Ironically, it was a missed vault that signaled to Evers that it might be his time to shine.

“I made 4.90 meters, but then I missed at 5 meters,” he said. “But on the miss, my hip height was huge. I thought, ‘I’m back,’ and I made every bar after that.”

Evers cleared 5.10, 5.20 and 5.30 meters, while Winder’s heights were staggered, clearing 5.25 and then 5.35. That meant Evers needed to clear 5.40 to take the lead again.

“I thought, ‘It’s go time for me,’” he said of the height, which is equivalent to 17-feet, 8-1/2 inches. “I waited for the wind, which was a crosswind. I waited for a little bit of a tailwind, and then just hit it as hard as could. The (approach) run felt amazing – no pain. When I let go of the pole, I was well over the bar. I remember just freaking out. That was a huge make for me.”

It was the winning vault, as Winder failed in three attempts to clear 5.45 meters.

“I was so nervous during that wait,” said Evers. “I said, ‘Coach, I don’t know what to do.’ And then he missed the final vault, and I knew I’d won. I felt the waterworks coming, and I hugged my dad.”

Some competitors shrink on their grandest stage, but Evers did just the opposite.

“It’s very unusual to be your best when your best is required,” said Haynes. “Dan’s two best vaults were his two national championships, which is quite rare.”

With the title in hand, Evers set out to conquer his last goal – an 18-foot bar – but it wasn’t to be.

“It’s only a few more inches than I’d already cleared, but 18 feet has been a mental barrier for me,” said Evers. “I really wanted to clear 18 at nationals.”

Although his days of vaulting as a Fighting Scot are over, Evers can still chase the elusive 18-foot barrier by competing unattached at meets throughout the region.