Five years later, Quiller’s NCAA title remains a defining moment
March 14, 2013Tweet
As a 12-year Division I athletic program, Binghamton University has already started to celebrate anniversary milestones from the previous decade. April 20, 2006 marked the five-year anniversary of Binghamton being admitted into the America East Conference. Three years later, Jan. 31 was the five-year anniversary of the Events Center’s first basketball game.
March 14, however, marks the five-year anniversary of perhaps Binghamton’s most significant individual athletic accomplishment. It was five years ago that Rory Quiller won the school’s first NCAA Division I championship. He captured the pole vault crown at the 2008 NCAA Division I Indoor Track Championships. That moment, as well as his career, remains the gold standard for individual excellence during Binghamton’s Division I era.
These days, Quiller is still very much involved in the sport that made him a household name. This past summer, he competed at the U.S. Olympic Trials for the second time in his career. During the previous four years, he competed in meets in Japan and Taiwan. Currently, he is an assistant track & field coach at the U.S. Naval Academy, specializing in the pole vault.
Much has changed for Quiller since he left Binghamton but his accomplishment five years ago is never far from his mind.
“Winning the national championship still means a lot to me,” he said. “I think athletes deal with doubt a lot, and success comes from confidence, which in turn comes from success. So to have some success in my career makes me confident that I can accomplish a great deal if I work hard enough and if I have a great support staff around me.”
When Binghamton moved up to the NCAA Division I level in 2001, it was seeking to build upon a successful legacy at the lower levels. During its Division III era, which lasted until 1998, Binghamton crowned 10 individual NCAA champions and produced 133 All-Americans. The school then added another individual champion and nine more All-Americans during its three-year stint at the Division II level.
In Binghamton’s first six years at the NCAA Division I level, three athletes had already earned All-America honors. Quiller became its fourth in 2007 when he was the runner up in the pole vault at the NCAA Indoor Championships. He followed that up with a fourth-place finish at the ensuring NCAA outdoor meet.
That set the stage for Quiller’s defining moment during the 2008 indoor track season. It would mark the conclusion of a prolific career that began nearly five years earlier.
Starting off strong
Quiller arrived at Binghamton in the fall of 2003 as a freshman from James O’Neil High School (located in West Point). At the time, the Events Center was still four months away from opening and it would be another three years before ground was broken on the new soccer and lacrosse fields, now known as the Bearcats Sports Complex. During the indoor track season, the athletes still practiced in the West Gym basement and the pole vaulters had to go off campus to train.
With his father Jerry being a college track coach and his mother Sandy having actually been his high school coach for a year, Quiller had a very strong pedigree coming out of high school.
“My parents never pushed me into anything, but they motivated me to make good decisions and find my passion,” Quiller said. “My father was a great coach, but he rarely coached me. He felt it was more important to be my father than my coach. My mother was actually my high school coach for a year when no one else would take the job and the school was going to cut the team. They both sacrificed a lot for their children and each other and they raised us to be good people first and foremost.”
Binghamton head track & field Coach Mike Thompson had known Quiller’s father Jerry for the previous 15 years but only became aware of his pole vaulting potential a few years earlier.
“I had known Rory’s dad since 1987 when he was the head track coach at the University of Colorado and I was an athlete at the University of Northern Colorado,” Thompson said. “I became aware that Rory was a pole vaulter when he was a sophomore in high school, but it was while watching him compete as a junior at the Indoor New York State Championship meet that I realized he was a special talent.”
The connection between Jerry and Coach Thompson was a significant factor in Quiller coming to Binghamton. Starting in 2003, however, Thompson would begin to make his own mark on Quiller’s career.
“The transition to Coach Thompson was seamless,” Quiller said. “He was a calming influence when I was too excited, he was a motivator when I had doubt, and he was everything in between. He was a very good fit for the type of athlete I was and I don’t think anyone else could have gotten me to the level I was during my time at Binghamton.”
With Thompson as his coach, Quiller wasted little time establishing himself as a standout pole vaulter. He won the America East title at his first indoor conference meet and placed sixth in the 2004 NCAA East Regional Outdoor Meet.
“I would say the breakthrough meet for me was East Regionals in 2004,” Quiller said. “I was seeded close to last and I got sixth. Coach Thompson and I had great synergy and things started to click.”
The veterans on that year’s squad were impressed with Quiller’s talent and work ethic. They were even more impressed with what he was like as a person.
Jaime Stitt-Sherwood was a sophomore on that year’s squad and was an all-conference pole vaulter. Like Quiller, she advanced to the NCAA Regional Outdoor Meet during her career.
“Even as an upperclassman, I was always in awe of Rory’s dedication to the sport of pole vaulting and to his teammates,” she said. “Rory came to Binghamton with amazing abilities but he was never someone who thought he was better than others and that was seen right from the beginning. He bonded with the team right away.”
Quiller’s devotion to his academics was also taken notice of. By the time his career was over, he would be named the America East Men’s Scholar-Athlete of the Year twice.
“Not only did Rory excel at being an amazing athlete but I can recall him working equally as hard on his school work during times we were away for longer periods of time,” Stitt-Sherwood said.
“I tried to line up everything to make me succeed at what I was doing,” Quiller said. “That included my academics, my health, my training and my social activities. I didn’t stay up late, I didn’t take risks and everything was with the priority of academics first, followed by pole vaulting. My father said that everything you do in your life is like adding grains of rice to a bucket. And if I did something that would help me towards my goal it would add a grain, and if I did something that deviated from my goal it would take a grain away. All I knew was that when I competed, I wanted to have the most rice in the bucket. I gained confidence from knowing that.”
By his sophomore year, Quiller had qualified for the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships and repeated as the conference’s pole vault champion. In the process, he became the first Binghamton track & field athlete to qualify for a Division I national meet.
“I wasn’t concerned about making the NCAA meet the first time in 2005 because my focus was still on local and conference competition,” Quiller said. “So making the meet was a surprise. The following years, when the expectation was there, were the tougher years to make it. Early in my career, it was comfortable to be the underdog at Binghamton, because that is the roll in which people expected us.”
Making his mark
By the time Quiller began his junior season, the expectations were starting to be present. He missed the indoor season with an injury but placed fourth at the ensuing East Regional Outdoor Championships. In the process, he qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
As Quiller continued to progress, his selfless demeanor remained the same. This was evident to his teammates.
Hasani Hampden was a senior on the 2005-06 squad. He was named the conference’s Most Outstanding Field Athlete during the indoor season and joined Quiller at that year’s East Outdoor Regional Meet. By now, Hampden had become used to Quiller’s championship performances. It was a gesture Quiller made toward a teammate, however, that truly stands out in his mind.
“I remember going into the 2006 America East Outdoor Championships and Rory was having a conversation with a senior teammate,” Hampden said. “They had a pact, that if Rory and his teammate were the last two competitors left in the pole vault competition, that Rory would concede and let his teammate win so that he could get the automatic berth to the NCAA Regional conference meet as the conference champion. Since Rory had already qualified for the NCAA regional meet (based on his top height during the season), he found it more important to let his teammate, a senior going to possibly his last meet, qualify as the champion then to add to his America East gold medal count. That’s how selfless Rory was.”
“Rory was always an exceptional person who truly cared about others,” Thompson said. “He was ultra-competitive but never arrogant. He had an amazing ability to be supremely confident and considerate at the same time.”
By 2007, Stitt-Sherwood and Hampden had graduted. Quiller, however, continued to develop into one of the best pole vaulters in the nation. He was second overall at the 2007 NCAA Indoor Championships and tied for fourth at the ensuing outdoor meet.
“It was a relief more than anything to finally be an All-American,” Quiller said. “At that point, I was jumping well and knew that I should be All-American, but hadn’t achieved it yet. So it was nice to get it out of the way. It was once I got second at the indoor meet that I thought winning was a realistic goal.”
Like his older teammates, the underclassmen that arrived at the height of Quiller’s success were completely won over by his demeanor both on and off the track.
Chris Gaube, who was a freshman on the 2006-07 squad, would go on to be the cross country and track team captain. There remains little doubt as to which upperclassman made the biggest impact on him during his rookie year.
“Rory really took me under his wing when I arrived at Binghamton,” he said. “He was the consummate team guy. I remember when we had Saturday 8 a.m. time trials during the summer before cross country, Rory would be one of the only spectators to show up. During a given school year, I bet he had a meal in the dining hall with every member of the team (men’s and women’s). I constantly looked up to him and as I became an upperclassman, I always tried to model myself after him and what he had taught me.”
Carly Jezik, who was an all-conference pole vaulter and graduated in 2010, has similar sentiments. She also recalls how Quiller was always ready to help his 4teammates in any way possible.
“He was always there whenever you needed someone to be there for you,” she said. “Whenever you needed advice from training techniques to school to life in general, he was there. Rory is someone I have been fortunate to call a great friend for many years.”
Since Quiller missed the 2006 indoor track season, he was eligible to compete during the 2008 indoor campaign. Heading into that season, he had already been to four NCAA Championship meets and had earned All-America honors twice. There was only one thing he had yet to accomplish but Quiller was able to keep level-headed about it.
“On my (2008) season goal sheet, I put that I wanted to place higher than I did the previous year at indoor NCAA’s,” he said. “I didn’t talk about winning. I focused on jumping high and kept it simple, focusing on executing technique. I was confident in what Coach Thompson had me do, and I didn’t worry about the outcome.”
The month of March in college athletics is when basketball takes center stage. In 2008, however, Quiller’s march toward the national title transcended even the most prominent sports at Binghamton. The week before the NCAA Indoor Championships, the Events Center was the host to the America East Men’s Basketball Tournament for the third time in four years. On the same night as the NCAA indoor meet, the Bearcat women’s basketball team was facing Albany in the America East quarterfinals. For the local media, however, the biggest story of the week was Quiller’s attempt at history.
To almost no one’s surprise, Quiller was the favorite going into the 2008 NCAA Indoor Championships. He had cemented his standing by jumping a career-best 18-6 the previous week to win the IC4A Championship. The expectations placed upon him could have caused him to wilt under pressure. Quiller, however, found the strength not to let it affect him.
“I would say that it wasn’t very nerve-wracking at all,” Quiller said. “Coach Thompson may remember it differently, but at that point I knew that I could jump high and if I executed well there would only be a couple guys in that field that could beat me. I wasn’t thinking too much about the win. If I jumped well and got second, like I did the previous year, then I wouldn’t have felt bad.”
Thompson had been in championship meets many times, both as a competitor and in his previous 12 years as the Binghamton head coach. In addition to coaching three national champions during his tenure (Monique Hacker and Jewdyer Osborne at the Division III level and Brian Hamilton at the Division II level), he himself had won the NCAA Division II pole vault title at Northern Colorado back in 1989. The night of the 2008 NCAA Division I Indoor Championships, however, was unlike any other meet he’d experienced.
“It was surreal,” Thompson said. “Rory was jumping well, too well in fact because he was blowing through the biggest pole he had ever jumped on which caused him to miss his first two attempts at 18-0. The situation became that if he made 18-0 on his third attempt he would win and if he missed he would finish fifth. I remember both of us being very calm on the outside before his third jump, but in reality, I was about to have a heart attack! I literally was too nervous to watch so I walked away from the pit before he took the jump. As he came down the runway I walked back towards the pit and sure enough he made it easily.”
Quiler’s memory of that jump, however, is not as vivid.
“I don’t remember the jump that won it,” Quiller said. “What I do remember is the relief having won once I was the last competitor. What I remember well was seeing 2my parents and Coach Thompson afterwards. Coach shared the same relief because he knew how close I was to screwing it up, and my parents were happy for me and glad that I accomplished something they knew I wanted so badly.”
“After the awards ceremony and mandatory drug test, we finally had a late dinner with his parents,” Thompson said. “I remember a general feeling of excitement and elation amongst everyone there.”
Nearly a thousand miles away, Quiller’s teammates paid close attention to how he was doing at the NCAA meet. The anxious moments and post-meet excitement was something they recall to this day.
“The night Rory won NCAA’s I was actually at home in Vestal with my family,” Gaube said. “My parents and I were glued to my laptop watching Flotrack’s live feed. There was no doubt in my mind he would win. He was literally unstoppable that season. When it became a reality, we all felt like champions in a way.”
“Ecstatic and overjoyed doesn’t even begin to explain the feeling we all had,” Jezik said. “Although it was Rory who was out there vaulting, all of our hearts and souls were there with him. We were so proud of him.”
A Hero’s welcome
Quiller may have not been phased by the pressure of winning a national title but he clearly was by the reception he got when he arrived back on campus the following week. At a ceremony on campus three days later, several local and state dignitaries issued proclamations saluting his triumph. The entire local media covered the event and a few other Binghamton teams even came to congratulate him.
“I was completely unprepared for that honor,” he said. “I can say that it was amazing to be commemorated, and to be recognized by the community and the University was something that not many have been honored enough to have. It was very exciting to have track and the pole vault in the spotlight as well.”
An even more moving tribute, however, came at the athletic department’s end-of-the-year Awards Banquet that May. To no one’s surprise, Quiller was named the department’s Male Athlete of the Year for the third time in four years. What blew everyone away, however, was the reception he got.
“The moment that Rory was named Athlete of the Year, the entire building gave him a standing ovation,” Gaube said. “This was not some ordinary standing ovation. It must have lasted five minutes. Rory was always so humble and so calm and collected, but at that moment I could tell how touched he was by the support and overwhelming level of solidarity that was displayed within the Event Center. This was just a small display of respect and admiration for all that Rory had accomplished and done for our Athletic Department.”
“It caught me off guard,” Quiller said. “I had won the award a couple times before and the protocol was walk up, accept the trophy, take a picture and return to my seat. This was different, and I was eventually asked to say some words. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember thinking of my parents who were watching from home and thinking that I better not embarrass them.”
“I was one of the first people to stand up for him,” Jezik said. “When I saw everyone else around me standing up, it just gave my chills. It was great to see that everyone knew what a deserving person Rory was of that and every award he has gotten.”
“I do remember that night and the standing ovation he received,” Thompson said. “My main thought on is that the applause he received was due 50 percent to his success as an athlete and 50 percent because of his character as a person.”
Quiller’s collegiate career ended in 2008 but his pole vaulting career did not. He qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials in both 2008 and 2012. At the second meet, he was eighth overall.
“The first time I went in 2008 I was all nerves and made mistakes,” Quiller said. “But I 22was able to correct them four years later. In 2008, I was excited to be there and I wanted to be there as much as a fan as an athlete. I think the second time around I was just happier to be there and didn’t feel the pressure as much as the first time.”
Joining Quiller at the 2012 trials was distance runner Erik van Ingen, who had since taken over the torch from Quiller as Binghamton’s most decorated athlete. He qualified for seven NCAA meets and earned All-America honors four times. His best performance was a fifth-place effort in the mile at the 2011 NCAA Indoor Championships.
“To have a former teammate there was not something I would have thought would happen,” Quiller said. “Erik is someone who will only get better and better. It felt great to see someone else in the stands wearing a Binghamton Late Nite Madness t-shirt from 2009.”
“Rory and I were only teammates for one season after I transferred (from Canisius in January 2008),” van Ingen said. “I can still remember Rory coming up to me and addressing me by name and being very welcoming. At the time, he was a favorite to win the NCAA title and I was a no-name freshman. Despite the differences, he never talked down to me. If anything, he downplayed his talent and accomplishments. Being able to compete at the Olympic Trials four years later with him was a great experience.”
This past fall, Quiller was commissioned as a Human Resource Officer at the U.S. Naval Academy. It is a five-year commitment which included him being an instructor in the Physical Education Department and coaching the pole vaulters on the men’s and women’s track teams.
“It is an amazing opportunity Navy has given me, and I could not be happier,” Quiller said. “This job fits my passion well. Every day I am able to do what I love, and to work with a highly motivated group of coaches and staff, not to mention the Midshipmen. We address the physical, moral, and mental missions of the Academy. It is an honor to make even the smallest difference in the lives of this young men and women.”
For Navy head coach Stephen Cooksey, bringing Quiller on board was an easy decision and the results this season could not have worked out better.
“When we had the chance to get this position, Rory was one of the first people that I thought of,” he said. “Just from what I knew about him and knowing his father, I knew he would be a very good choice for us.”
At the most recent Patriot League Indoor Track Championships, Navy took the top four places in the men’s pole vault. Cooksey credits Quiller with making that accomplishment possible.
“For us to finish 1-4 was just a credit to Rory,” he said. “The closer it got to the meet, the more tension was there in knowing that we had the possibility to get a lot of points. But Rory kept them all calm and focused on the meet and the energy that he expressed really helped them jump well. Everyone that I have talked to about him is just so pleased with what he has been doing.”
While Quiller is flourishing in his role at Navy, he remains a big supporter of the Binghamton track & field program. In the five years since he won the NCAA title, the Bearcat men’s team has been the runner up at the America East indoor meet five times. At the outdoor championships, they have been the runner-up three straight years. The men’s cross country team won the America East title in 2009 and the women’s track & field team has finished third in most recent indoor and outdoor conference meets.
“The standard for success at Binghamton is so much higher now than it was when I was competing,” Quiller said. “They have become a well-balanced team, they are well coached and they will continue to be successful for a long time because they have a winning culture that permeates everything they do.”
That culture is what Quiller will always attribute to his NCAA title five years ago. Despite his tremendous potential coming out of high school, he needed the right environment to soar to the heights that he did.
“Binghamton has given me more than I could ever return,” he said. “I could speculate that I would have found some success at other institutions, but I know that if it wasn’t for Coach Thompson and the support of the Athletic Department and the University, I would have never experienced the level of success I enjoyed in my years in Vestal.”
At Binghamton University, Rory Quiller’s NCAA title will always be a significant part of its athletic program’s history. There are reminders throughout the Events Center. In the lobby, for instance, is Quiller’s photo along side the Bearcats’ other Division I All-Americans. In the TAU club room, meanwhile, is the jersey he wore the night he won the NCAA title.
The reminders of Quiller extended to the advertising world as well. Every year during televised Binghamton athletic events, there is a 30-second commercial for Binghamton University, featuring Quiller. The ad, which is entitled “The Binghamton Advantage,” was filmed in November 2007 and was eventually named one of the top 10 best college commercials by SportsatCollege.com.
“When you think of the Binghamton Bearcats, you think of Rory Quiller,” Gaube said. “He will go down as the best athlete ever at Binghamton and we can all say we were there along for the ride with him.”
“What it comes down to is that Rory is the type of athlete a team and university sees once in a lifetime,” van Ingen said. “He has set the bar of excellence literally and figuratively for all student-athletes who have the privilege to don the Binghamton name.”