The fictional town of Centralia High School, in Centralia, Kan., (Pop. 512)., Kan., paints an authentic picture of Midwest farm towns and the people who live there; including down-to-earth, everyday-heroes like Kimbrook Tennal, assistant track coach at
Located in extreme northeast Kansas, Centralia is best known for producing NFL star John Riggins, who was born in Seneca and attended Centralia High. Riggins went on to play for the New York Jets and Washington Redskins, and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the new teen sports novel, Maggie Vaults Over the Moon, author Grant Overstake retells the story of another amazing small-town athlete, Maggie Steele, a gutsy farm girl who pours her broken heart into the daring sport of pole-vaulting. The story climaxes at the Kansas State Championships, the largest track meet in the nation, held at Wichita State University‘s Cessna Stadium.
“I loved the book and I wish I had written it,” he wrote. “I consider that about as high a compliment on the book as I can make.”
Tennal has been a pole-vault coach for over 30 years and, since 2003, has taken more than 20 vaulters to the Kansas State Meet. He has coached three state pole-vault champions, including his son, who won the Class 1A title in 2006. The coach predicts more Centralia Panther vaulters will make it to the state meet this season.
Lucky for us, Coach Tennal also moonlights as sports columnist for the local weekly newspaper, The Courier-Tribune.
This week, the scribe devoted his entire column to Maggie, which, thanks to Editor Matt Diehl, is excerpted here:
Maggie Vaults Over the Moon made me laugh and it made me cry and it took me back down onto the track at Cessna Stadium where I had one of the most exciting memorable moments in all of my coaching career.
In 2006, on a 105 degree day late in May with a hot wind howling out of the south, my youngest son, who up to that point was the only person in our family who did not have a state championship medal to his credit, won the 1A state pole-vault championship… My son and I grabbed each other and hugged as the tears sprang into my eyes. All the blood sweat and tears over the last six years to take an average athlete to the top of the podium in his classification was over. …I was the proudest father in that stadium of 20,000 spectators.
Maggie Vaults Over the Moon brought all those memories flooding back. When I had finished reading the book, which I did all in one sitting partly because I didn’t want to put the book down, I thought to myself, “I wish I had written this book.”
I tell my athletes to set goals that give you goose bumps. Maggie Vaults Over the Moon gave me goose bumps! The most privileged and talented athletes don’t always win the gold. Sometimes the gold goes to those with the biggest dreams.
…The setting for the book is a small town in Kansas very similar to Centralia or Seneca. Rural life is depicted to perfection in this book about a girl who becomes a pole vaulter after a tragedy hits her family. Anybody interested in obtaining a copy of Maggie Vaults Over the Moon can do so at Amazon.com.
We discovered that Coach Tennal himself was a standout athlete, who grew up in Sabetha and Topeka, Kan., and was a three-sport letter winner in football, track, and wrestling in college. As a youngster, he fell in love pole-vaulting; which he captured sometime back in a wonderful article, excerpted here:
My big brother was a good athlete. He came home one day from junior high track practice with an old broken pole-vault pole. We hammered a bunch of nails into some two by two’s then stuck them into the ground. An old bamboo fishing pole was the crossbar. We made a box out of some more boards then put that into the ground so we would have a place to plant the pole. Some other kids came over and we all took turns trying to vault. We didn’t have anything to land on but the ground, so the higher you went the more it hurt when you came down.
Anyway, that was how I got interested in pole vaulting.
There was a stretch of time when we went everywhere with a bamboo pole in our hands. We vaulted in Gary Scoby’s back yard and my back yard and in Drex Flott’s yard. Sometimes we just planted the pole in the street and rode it up. We thought we were pretty cool. I was just in the sixth grade. When I cleared 7 feet for the first time, I really thought I was something. Landed pretty hard and about knocked the wind out of myself, but the crossbar stayed up and that was all that mattered.
That first year in junior high I cleared 8 feet landing in a sand pit. The next year Jack Thomas was the coach and he bought me a fiberglass pole. Then we went over to the shutter factory in Hiawatha one Saturday in the school pickup and got a load of sawdust to put in the pit. Sawdust was a softer landing, but it got in your eyes and hair and down your pants.
I never became a great pole-vaulter, but I was the first freshman to ever make 10 feet at Sabetha High School, according to the coach. Our runways back then were just packed dirt. I liked to vault barefoot when they let me. The only pole our school owned was too big for me to bend. I weighed in at a whopping 130 pounds as a freshman. The only pole we had was for a 160-pounder. Still I loved it.
The event has come a long way since I picked up a bamboo pole back in 1963. It is the most thrilling and challenging event in all of track and field, and I get to coach it! Thanks big brother, for bringing home that old pole.
Fittingly, Centralia High School is located on John Riggins Avenue, the main street in town. But, at the very least, we think Coach Tennal deserves to have Centralia’s pole-vault runway named after him, to honor his great success as a coach, and a father, and his lasting influence on so many young people.
They could call it: Coach Tennal’s Runway of Champions.