Fourteen years ago, the Chandler girls track team had little hope of being competitive, but at least it ate well.
It was Eric Richardson’s first year as coach, and that 1997 squad was a far cry from today’s well-oiled program.
Back then, the Wolves would fit their entire track team in a 15-passenger van when traveling to meets, with most of the seats taken up by coaches. Chandler had a total of five girls, including none involved in field events.
There was one positive, though: The team could really splurge on pre- and post-meet meals.
“At the time, schools were giving money to help feed the kids,” Richardson said. “We would have these great meals, and we’d still be giving money back. I think it’s the first time ever someone gave money back. It was pretty bad.”
Richardson reminisced at practice on Tuesday, where he has grown Chandler into not only the top program in Arizona, but arguably the nation.
The Wolves are fresh off a return from the Nike Track and Field Nationals in Eugene, Ore., where they scored 8,096.71 points to win a second consecutive national title, beating out famed Long Beach Poly (Calif.) for the championship.
Chandler boasted a pair of future Olympic hopefuls in Hannah Carson and Jasmine Todd, as well as a group of youngsters coming up that seem destined to keep the program on the right track.
The Wolves were so good this year that winning a state championship was virtually guaranteed before the season ever began. With that in mind, the athletes trained to be at their season’s peak in Eugene, and still won the Division I title by an incredible 153.5 points. Chandler totaled 224.5 points in the event.
“When we came back to school (after capturing the state title), it was no big deal,” triple jumper/hurdler Bacall Sterling said. “At other schools, if they would have won, it would have been crazy.”
“It was a nice feeling,” shot putter Bianca Finn said, “but it wasn’t a big surprise.”
Richardson has helped run the Arizona Cheetahs track club since before his start at Chandler. The club team has always been successful, and it helped cultivate the talent of the athletes, who would then return to various East Valley schools.
In the past several years, though, more and more of those kids are choosing Chandler.
“At that time we had probably 160, 170 kids (with the Cheetahs) and they were going everywhere,” Richardson said. “A lot of schools benefitted. They still do today, but a lot more kids go here now then they did back in those days.”
Carson participated as a freshman for Dobson while at Rhodes Middle School, then came over as a sophomore. Finn should have gone to Basha but open enrolled at Chandler because of the track team.
The talent continually increased during Richardson’s tenure, but it took a watershed moment in 2005 for the Chandler program to really take off.
“Seven years ago, we had the absolute worst track team that we’ve had since I’d been here,” Richardson said. “They weren’t the worst talent-wise, but they were the nastiest individuals. They were catty. They would pull each other apart from the seams.”
Chandler finished fifth in the state in 2004, but dropped to seventh that year.
“After that, we dedicated ourselves to forming more solid leadership,” Richardson said. “We figured the athletic part would take care of itself. And once we got that, then the state championships started coming, and the rest is history.”
The Wolves have now captured six straight state titles and don’t seem to be slowing down.
When Chandler went to the Nike meet last season, teams considered it an afterthought. Long Beach Poly was the favorite, and although the Wolves qualified as the No. 2 team, squads from other states were expected to put up more of a fight.
It was Chandler that won it, and in last week’s return trip, the Wolves were the marquee attraction.
“Everyone was coming up to us and talking to us,” Sterling said. “We get off the bus and a camera is rolling. They followed us to practice. It was crazy.”
With Todd, Sterling, Finn, Ky Westbrook and others expected to return next season, the trophy engraver may as well start putting Chandler’s name in as the state champs once again for 2012.
It’s a far cry from the passenger van days, when Chandler couldn’t get enough girls out to fill a full team.
“I thought we had a chance to be pretty good (eventually), but this is beyond my wildest imagination,” Richardson said.