Darreyl Woodson had been away from the track for three years, so she had no idea how fast her legs would carry her.
“I was just going for it, to see what I could do,” said Woodson. “I had no idea, actually.”
The Higley freshman quickly had an idea that she could be one of the best in the state, clocking a meet-record of 26.24 seconds to win the 200 meters at the first meet of the season, the Desert Classic at Queen Creek.
“I was really surprised,” said Woodson, who ran Junior Olympic track from kindergarten until the sixth grade but hadn’t run since due to an injury. “I was glad I didn’t lose the speed I had as a kid.”
Woodson is just one of a lengthy list of freshman girls that dot the top 10 performance charts going into this week, according to high school track and field performance website athletic.net. In fact, Woodson is ranked in the top four in Division III in four different events. She’s second in the 100 (12.80), 200 (25.97) and long jump (16-feet, 10 1/2 inches) and fourth in the 400 (1:01.67).
In all, 41 different freshman girls are currently ranked in the top 10 in their respective divisions in at least one event, compared to 15 boys. Overall in the state, nine freshman girls have posted performances that rank in the top 10, while just three boys have achieved that feat.
“Pretty much across the board, girls mature at a faster rate, mentally as well as physically,” said Chandler girls track coach Eric Richardson. “And if they have been involved in athletics, or just by nature, they are a lot more mature and ready to compete at a high level.”
Richardson has four such phenoms on his team this year. Tope Williams is currently the top 200-meter runner in the state at 25.11 seconds. She’s also third in the 100 (12.13), one spot behind fellow Chandler freshman Ky Westbrook, who ranks second.
Westbrook has already been clocked at 11.80 in the 100 (albeit with a slight tail wind) and is also ranked third in the state in the 200 (25.28) and fifth in the shot put (38-9 3/4).
The other top Chandler freshmen are Imani Adams, who has already clocked a 58.40 in the 400 and ranks seventh overall, and Bianca Finn, who his ninth in Division I in the shot put (36-2 3/4).
“All of them started at a young age and got good coaching and training,” Richardson said of his freshmen. “And they hate to lose and will do what it takes to get to the top of the pile.”
For Richardson and other coaches dealing with talented freshman athletes, it’s a balancing act to keep them from hitting a wall. The tendency is for the freshmen to come out and go all out, all the time. That youthful excitement must be reigned in.
“Sometimes they come in and they are ready to go and their naiveite can be a blessing,” said Desert Vista coach Chris Hanson. “They listen, they don’t know any better and they tend to have no fears built up.
“I have to start out at least somewhat conservative. It’s hard with young kids because they want it now and that instant gratification can be a hindrance. You have to teach them it’s a long road.”
For outstanding freshmen like Westbrook, Williams and Hamilton’s Ashlee Moore, their experience in Junior Olympic competition helps prepare them for high school. All three have been in several national championship meets as youths, so they were not intimidated by the uptick in competition.
“I’ve been running seven or eight years, so this season is nothing new,” Williams said. “I had already run some really good times, so I thought I could do really well. I have big dreams to run really big.”
For Williams and Westbrook, running big means challenging the state freshman records of 11.69 in the 100 and 23.98 in the 200. Moore is also closing in on all-time bests among newcomers in two events, the high jump and the long jump. Already this season, Moore has gone 18-1 in the long jump, well in range of the record of 19-1.
She has also made 5-6 in the high jump, but will need to make 5-8 1/2 to tie the old record.
Records are not the only thing this talented group of freshmen are going for.
“A 100 percent scholarship, that’s what I’m aiming for,” said Williams. “I want to be the best, better than (Florence Griffith-Joyner), better than all of them. That drives me, a 100 percent scholarship.”
For the coaches charged with getting Williams and the other freshmen to reach their goals, staying in tune with their development and improvement is vital.
“You want to sit back and marvel, but you want to monitor their progress,” Richardson said. “If they don’t progress, it’s either a failure to learn, or a failure to teach.
“If their progress flattens out, people will ask what’s wrong with the kids, but sometimes it’s us guys at the top that aren’t doing things right.”