July 26, 2006 - The line of teens and adults carrying 12 and 13-foot poles stretched down the driveway and spilled out onto Edison Street, only to disappear one by one like planes taxiing on a runway.
Every so often, a lucky neighbor passing by on an afternoon walk could even catch the take-off as a spindly body arcs higher than the roof and toward the heavens.
The rubberized runway that used to be a driveway for Roy D. Willits Jr. and his wife Jennifer Croissant leads into a backyard that only a pole-vaulter could dream up. There, with the sound of the traffic of Grant Road as a backdrop, is the headquarters of the Tucson Pole Pilots, the premier pole-vaulting club in Southern Arizona.
"Every high school pole-vaulter is like, 'this is the house I wanted when I grew up,' said Croissant, sitting in a chair next to the one of the couple's two vault pits.
The house features two regulation-sized pole vault pits, trampoline, rings, ropes and a high bar and is training headquarters for more than 30 vaulters ages 14 through 60.
"We're pole vault geeks; we love it," said Willits, founder of the Tucson Pole Pilots. "That's why we do it."
Willits founded the program eight years ago when he began training two-time Olympian and Amphitheater High School alum Dominic Johnson. Today, the club features high school athletes from Canyon Del Oro, Ironwood Ridge, Mountain View, Amphi, Rincon-University, Sabino, Sahuaro and Sunnyside high schools.
Willits is no stranger to success. In 1973 he set the Tucson city pole-vault record, which he topped the next year when he became the first Tucson vaulter to clear 15 feet. The record held until 1993 when Johnson broke it.
Canyon Del Oro High School's Molly Clancy is one of the backyard vaulters benefiting from the club.
"If there was no training in the off-season we would just not be ready for the school season," said the CDO junior, who enjoys the momentum the club creates. "A lot of kids just start in school season and it's at the end when they're reaching their peak. But we're there. We've already been there, so then we just go up from there so it really gives us an edge."
Molly's momentum wasn't enough to win the Class 4A Division 1 state championship. That honor went to her sister, the University of Tulsa-bound Caitlin, who is a CDO grad and Pole Pilot vaulter since her freshman year.
Caitlin was one of three state champs the Pole Pilots produced this spring including Ironwood Ridge High School's Colin Witter-Tilton (who will vault at the University of Oregon in the fall) and Casa Grande High School's Martin Nevarez.
Nevarez and other Casa Grande coaches and athletes make the 150-mile round trip twice a week just to train with Willits and Croissant and any other coaches who may show up to help train vaulters.
"This is where it happened," said Casa Grande coach Jesus Salazar about Nevarez's state title.
Phoenix is home to four pole vault clubs, many of which charge upwards of $40 a lesson. In Tucson, however, the Pole Pilots are the only game in town. To promote the sport, Willits intentionally keeps prices low. So low, in fact, many Phoenix coaches accuse him of "giving it away for free."
The one-time fee for the season - which runs from the first week in October through the beginning of August - is $40. Some parents pay monthly dues while some even pay as if they were sending their kids through gymnastic lessons, which run as high as $40 a lesson. All the money just gets thrown into the fund of the non-profit club, said Willits.
"We don't make any money off of this. It costs us," said the coach. "My whole goal is to make Tucson competitive with Phoenix, and Phoenix has been one of the best systems in the country. Texas has some 17-footers but we've been more consistent with 16-footers up there. I want to bring this to that level."
The club does not come to a halt during the high school season. Willits, a coach at Mountain View High School, and Croissant, who will take over as head boys coach at Salpointe Catholic this spring, will rush home after high school practice in time to join the master vaulters for practice starting at 6:30.
The Master's Program is for athletes out of high school and college. The Pole Pilots feature four of them, including Art Parry of Dove Mountain.
Parry, 60, holds the current state record for his age group with a vault of 11-feet, 6-inches. As his training progresses, Parry says he will take aim at the world record, a mark he believes he can attain if he can clear 12-feet, 10-inches.
The fact that Parry is vaulting is a marvel in its own right. Before picking up the sport again in February, the last time he even held a pole was 41 years ago. Now with the tutelage of coaches like Willits, he'll challenge for the world record.
Practices are designed to be intense but fun. Why else would athletes who no longer compete, such as Catalina Foothills grad Lee Poe, still come back and workout?
About 90 percent of the training is vaulting and the rest is conditioning. Club members will vault on Mondays and Thursdays and run the remaining days of the week.
On the days they're in the backyard, the athletes find themselves consistently reaching new heights and personal bests. And the neighbors continue to get a free show.