MONTICELLO — She was never an understudy. Instead, Monticello's Landis Brandon has spent the last two years as the best actor in a supporting role.
Until this year, Aliyah Welter was among the best pole vaulters in Class 2A for the Sages. She earned a Division I scholarship to the University of Louisville and had four top-five finishes at state that included a championship as a junior.
Brandon learned from Welter for two years while putting up her own strong numbers and a pair of top-10 finishes at state — she just flew fairly under the radar in what has been a strong pole vaulting group in Class 2A. As a sophomore last season, she finished eighth at state and tied for seventh as a freshman two years ago.
Now a junior, with Welter in college, Brandon has stepped into a starring role for the Sages and is ranked the fifth best vaulter in Class 2A. On Friday, she'll participate in the preliminary round of the Class 2A state track and field meet in the pole vault, in which she's seeded fourth, and on the 4x100- and 4x200-meter relay teams at O'Brien Stadium in Charleston on the campus of Eastern Illinois University.
“I do miss having a teammate, but it’s exciting being the only pole vaulter right now just because, I mean, I have gotten first at a lot of meets," Brandon said after Monticello won its fifth consecutive sectional championship last week at Tolono Unity.
Her pole vaulting career hasn't come close to hitting it's apex, but six years ago the career almost never happened.
When Brandon was in sixth grade, Monticello Junior High didn't offer pole vaulting. Instead, she set her eyes on doing the high jump when she reached seventh grade. A family friend with experience in vaulting caught wind that Brandon's plans didn't include pole vault. He knew she had a gymnast background and persuaded her to give it a try.
It didn't take long for Brandon to ditch the dreams of high jump and instead turn to pole vaulting — one practice is actually all it took. She's never bothered with the high jump.
“Pole vault is just such a fun thing to do," she said. "It’s different and it’s very hard to learn, but it’s awesome. It’s unique because you’re using a pole to jump. You’d never think that. Just having the feeling that you get up in the air, then fall back. Once you get all the technique and everything, like the turn, it’s just fun to put it all together."
Brandon just so happens to have all of the qualities that make for a good pole vaulter. Like most at Monticello, she doesn't specialize in any one event. The sprints translate to the vaulting runway.
“She’s a strong girl," Monticello track coach Cully Welter said. "She’s definitely a powerful type of kid. She’s got pretty good speed. She’s got the natural qualities of a pole vaulter."
This season is also different than last in the sense that Brandon is healthy. She broke her foot early in an indoor meet while running in the 4x400-meter relay. She was out until May 1 at the Illini Prairie Conference meet and still shed off any rust to advance to the state meet in Charleston. She participated in just four meets before the preliminary rounds of state.
“She came back at the end of the year and really surprised us, got right back on the horse and qualified for state," Cully Welter said. "It’s good to have her healthy this year."
After participating in one event at state last year, Brandon is ready for her bigger role. In a span of about two hours, she'll have participated in three events on Friday. That's no problem for Brandon.
It all goes together.
“I love them both because they both relate to each other," Brandon said. "If you do the sprints, that will put in the work for pole vaulting, too."