CENTRAL FALLS – The moment has been building towards this crescendo of curiosity. After all, when the interview subject is articulating freely about his high jump prowess and is standing roughly 100 feet away from a basket in the school gym, inquisitive minds yearn.
Can you, Steven Vazquez, dunk a basketball?
“Yes I can, yes I can,” laughs the junior from Central Falls High, an expression that suggested he knew the question was coming. “The first time I dunked was when I was in eighth grade. It was all of a sudden, coming during gym class. Easily with two hands or one hand.”
Easy also exemplifies the relative smoothness Vazquez displays on the track & field circuit. He competes in an event known for whittling down the competition rather quickly; one can either defy gravity for a split second or not, as there’s no middle ground to save high jumpers. Such a discipline requires natural ability on top of hard work, two attributes that shine through every time Vazquez contorts his 5-foot-10, 138-pound frame safely and successfully over the bar. It’s then onto the next jump, and the one after that.
What makes Vazquez even more of an up-in-the-air marvel is his practice habits leading up to indoor meets. They are nonexistent.
That’s what happens when you’re the starting point guard on the Warriors’ basketball team, a responsibility Vazquez recently became entrusted with.
“I have zero practice for indoor,” Vazquez said, failing in his attempt to keep a straight face while saying this. “I’m not going to lie or beat around the bush.”
With that brief synopsis in mind, it makes extolling the lofty heights Vazquez has climbed this indoor season quite all right. He soared a season-best 6 feet, 6 inches during last weekend’s Northern Division championship, a winning mark that also served the same purpose akin to a hurricane warning. The challenge was issued that come time for the class and state meet – on tap for the next two Saturdays – challengers will have to go through him.
Keep in mind, however, that the field will be welcoming someone coming directly from a 9 a.m. basketball practice. Not that that figures to provide a competitive advantage, as Vazquez has demonstrated otherwise.
“I try not to go too hard (when basketball practice falls on the same day as a meet),” said Vazquez, averaging 6 feet, 4 inches per high jump attempt this season. “It’s just human nature, though.”
“Even if he doesn’t have the opportunity to practice high jumping because it’s basketball season, he’s not going to forget,” said Nick Palazzo, C.F.’s head boys’ indoor track coach. “The repetition is built in his brain, but the ability is always going to be there.”
VAZQUEZ ENTERED HIGH SCHOOL with the same athletic ambitions as most wide-eyed ninth graders. He was going to play basketball and football, two mainstream sports that rank up there in popularity with today’s youth. Track? High jumping?
“I didn’t even know the sport existed,” says Vazquez.
The story goes that Palazzo along with fellow track coach Ernest Fennell got Vazquez to bite during his freshman year. Progress was measured in increments, as Vazquez remembers jumping 5-6, 5-7. Fennell and Palazzo chose to focus on potential, which they believed their young pupil had in droves.
As a sophomore Vazquez started to unearth said potential. By the time of last June’s outdoor championships, he was in full bloom. His duel with Chariho’s Innocent Jacob witnessed each clearing 6 feet, 8 inches, yet top honors went to Vazquez based solely on fewer misses. Jacob figures to serve as Vazquez’ chief threat come next Saturday’s state meet at the Providence Career & Technical Academy Athletic Center.
“Everything progressed during all of the (spring) meets, going up an inch or two each time,” Vazquez noted. “I started at 5-10 and ended at 6-8.”
Vazquez still plays basketball and football, yet it’s as a long jumper that currently defines him. He’s already received inquires from 15 colleges, including URI.
“I said to myself, ‘What are the odds of me going to college to play basketball? Slim,’” said Vazquez. “My odds to go based on track are much higher.”
ANY HIGH JUMPER WILL tell you there’s one all-out objective. Jumping high is easier said than done, however. Everything needs to align properly, from the angle taken on the run, the position of one’s arms and knees, to the moment of truth, the take-off.
Then what? According to Vazquez, look above for divine assistance.
“I start off fast, gather my momentum, put my knee up and raise my hands to get to my highest point,” shared Vazquez. “Then I pray to God that I don’t hit the bar!”
Vazquez equates the rush he feels prior to going airborne to that of closing in for a layup. The end result is so satisfying if everything is executed to a tee. With that in mind, Palazzo credits Vazquez’ basketball training in assisting him maintain a degree of sharpness for track.
“A lot of the (basketball) footwork is the same when you approach the pit,” equates the Warriors coach. “It’s similar to running at the hoop at an angle.”
Contestants have the option of requesting at which height they wish to start. For indoor meets Vazquez selects 5 feet, 8 inches because “I need to get used to jumping and get into a good rhythm.” Clearing the height is rewarded with the tacking on of two inches. The process is repeated until the outcome is determined.
“Sometimes I picture myself jumping over the bar, or I see myself jumping higher,” said Vazquez, who as the Warriors’ starting quarterback last fall threw for over 1,100 yards.
Come outdoor season, when Palazzo doesn’t have basketball to compete with, he will put Vazquez through a grueling workout that will address all of the core muscles summoned during his date with Newton’s three laws of motion. There’s plyometric training, (designed to close to the gap between speed and strength) in addition to jumping and running exercises.
Apparently it takes more than high-octane calisthenics to zap Vazquez and what Palazzo believes is an endless source of energy.
“After I think I’ve worked him into the ground and he’s had a good day’s workout, he’s out playing basketball after practice during outdoor season,” regaled Palazzo. “He’s got a motor that doesn’t stop.”
As Palazzo notes, “No one jumps over 6-6 on natural ability. It comes from his work ethic day-in and day-out.”
BRIAN CROOKES IS AWARE that he has a unique talent on his roster. That’s why the Central Falls head boys’ basketball coach doesn’t stand in Vazquez’ way.
“I encourage him. He practices on his own time and it doesn’t interfere with basketball at all. When he has meets, they never conflict with our games,” Crookes said. “I don’t worry about injury there. Kids tend to get hurt when they do things at half-speed, but Steven is serious about jumping.”
Averaging five points on the season, Vazquez brings his lunch pail to the court every day. Whether it’s taking charges or setting picks, Crookes knows in Vazquez that he has a tough-as-nails-guard who’s not shy when it comes to absorbing contact.
“I can take a hit,” Vazquez proudly says.
Adds Crookes, “Steven does things that you can’t teach. He sees things happen, a gifted athlete who works hard.”
THERE’S AN ALL-STAR GAME that follows the boys’ basketball season, held at Rhode Island College. Among the events is a slam dunk contest. Vazquez’ eyes lit up when the topic was broached. Becoming an all-division pick has generally been the way to gain admittance to the after-season festival, but given his reputation as a leapfrog, perhaps an exemption can be made in Vazquez’ case.
“I would like to have the chance,” Vazquez said.
Until then, keep following his feats on the oval.