Notre Dame High School's Monica Pechanec is the 2011 Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year.

Sports have been a major part of Monica Pechanec’s life as far back as her toddler years.

First, it was gymnastics, an activity she started at the age of 3 and reached Level 7 by the time she was 12.

Then there was tennis, a sport that appeared to be her real athletic future. A racquet was placed in her hand in early elementary school, and by the time she reached Notre Dame High School, she was the Crusaders’ No. 3 player as a freshman and their No. 1 player as a junior.

But an elbow injury ended her dream of becoming the next Chris Evert. Then she was introduced to the pole vault.

“When I hurt my elbow, it made me go out for track,” said Pechanec, 17, a resident of Lopatcong Township. “I had to find another sport.”

With Pechanec’s background in gymnastics, the logical move was to try the pole vault, a track and field event that is more of a gymnastics event than a track event anyway. She got connected with Mike Lawryk’s Vertical Assault Club in Allen Township.

After a year of adjustment, Pechanec rode her talents to a PIAA Class AA championship last month, clearing 12 feet to win the event at Shippensburg University. She was the only girl in The Express-Times region to win a state championship on either side of the Delaware River.

For her gold medal journey, Pechanec is the The Express-Times Girls Track and Field Athlete of the Year, the first Notre Dame boy or girl to win the award.

Home-schooled from third through eighth grade, Pechanec entered Notre Dame as a freshman. She didn’t go out for the track team until her junior season.

“I joined Vertical Assault right away and for about the first six months, I struggled,” said Pechanec, who will continue her academic and vaulting career at Brown University. “But I never once thought about quitting because I loved the sport too much.”

Pechanec cleared 10-6 her first outdoor season, a good start. But with Wilson’s Allison Vanek, who would go on to set the PIAA Class AA record (12-7) there wasn’t much air left in the room for Pechanec or anyone else in the Colonial League. Pechanec cleared 10-6 at the state meet but missed a chance at a top-eight medal on misses.

This past indoor season, Pechanec began figuring out the event.

“I was going over the bar backwards and it took me a long time to break that habit,” she said. “I can see photos of me vaulting, and I can tell right away whether it was last year or this year just by the way I look going over the bar. But once I got into the indoor season, I started improving by three-to-six inches every meet.”

Pechanec’s best indoor clearance was 12-3 on Jan. 22 at the New Balance Games at the Armory in New York. That effort tied her for No. 8 all-time on the region’s girls pole vault list.

“I was already in the middle of my season, really, when outdoor season started,” Pechanec said. “I hadn’t stopped vaulting since (last) November.”

Notre Dame head coach Art Corrigan was amazed at Pechanec’s improvement in only her second year in pole vaulting.

“Monica’s such a great athlete,” Corrigan said. “And she’s so dedicated. All the younger girls looked up to her. She taught all our younger girls how to vault. The whole school got behind her. I told my A.D. (Tony Koury) at the beginning of the season that we have a special person here. We should be doing special things for her.”

Besides her mid-air mechanics, Pechanec said she improved her approach on the runway, an underrated aspect of pole vaulting. Lawryk and one of his assistants, Joe Donahue, worked hard with Pechanec to perfect her approach.

“I began running better,” she said. “I had a good (midair) swing, but I had to become more efficient in my running. Say you set your approach at 83 feet. I try to take a seven-step approach but my arms were flying all over the place, which affects your takeoff.”

Pechanec established herself as the top vaulter in the region immediately in the outdoor season. She cleared 11-0 in Notre Dame’s first meet on March 29 against Catasauqua and Northern Lehigh. She then made 12-0 against Wilson on April 14.

Pechanec qualified for the Penn Relays in late April. Even though Pechanec no-heighted at Penn, she rebounded nicely thereafter. She cleared 11-9 at the Colonial League and District 11 meets, the latter effort establishing her as the No. 1 seed for the state championships.

“That was a little stressful, being the top seed,” she said. “Everybody was just assuming I was going to win, but in sports it doesn’t always work that way.”

Pechanec comes from good athletic stock. Her mother, Yvette, was a top Junior Olympics gymnast and her father, Tomas, was a member of the Czech national team in sailing. Her sister, Nicole, will be a senior at Stanford University where she’s a member of the women’s gymnastics team.

Sometimes athletes find the sports they excel in and sometimes the sport finds them. In Pechanec’s case, a little case of tennis elbow steered her in the direction of the pole vault and it led to state gold in central Pennsylvania.