DOBSON — Surry Central senior Tyler Fitzgerald grew up around track and field, so it was natural that this became his sport of choice, both for high school and when he proved to be good enough to draw interest from collegiate programs.
For him, his discipline of choice as a track and field athlete was just as obvious.
“I grew up going to track meets and watching the kids run,” he said. “I was always fascinated with watching the pole vaulters. That was the most fun thing to watch. You can watch people run around in circles, but in pole vaulting, you’re watching someone fly, so ever since I was little, I always said ‘I want to do that.’ So I grew up and I did it.”
Fitzgerald has made a name for himself over the past three years as a pole vaulter for the Golden Eagles, turning in some of the strongest performances in the area in that particular event. At the 2A state track and field championships last May, he earned National Elite status when he vaulted exactly 14 feet — a figure that almost always wins the state championship for any athlete who achieves it. However, Jon Ramsey of Bunker Hill High School matched his best vault at 14’0”, and had fewer misses at that height. By rule, this meant that Fitzgerald had to settle for second place overall, even though he had tied for the best height.
Nevertheless, this performance and others had several colleges and universities interested in having him vault for them after graduating from Central this spring.
“I had visited other colleges just to look around and to take part in other competitions,” he said. “I looked into Charlotte and Greensboro, but I really didn’t like the big college. I really didn’t like being in a college with thousands of other people.”
The answer came from a school that already had a connection to the Fitzgerald family. While in college at Appalachian State University, Tyler’s parents Jeff and Deanne had been teammates with Jason Lewkowicz, who went on to become a respected coach for many years at many small colleges around the country.
Lewkowicz had helped build strong programs at Eastern Mennonite, Hannibal-LaGrange and the University of Virginia-Wise, but in June of 2015, he came to Montreat, where he runs the cross country program and is overall Associate Head Coach of the college’s track and field program.
“Mom and Dad are friends with Coach Lewkowicz from when they were on the track team with him in college, so he invited me to come up,” said Tyler. “I just loved the place. Montreat just felt more like home than anywhere else.”
On the afternoon of Jan. 4, Fitzgerald signed his national letter of intent with Montreat, a member of the Appalachian Athletic Conference that competes in the NAIA. The school is located near Asheville. The Cavaliers frequently compete against schools that play at a higher classification, including many NCAA Division I opponents.
He will make his college debut this December, when Montreat begins its 2017-18 indoor season.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.