David Espinoza, the first-year head track-and-field coach at Agua Fria High School, said in March he wanted to see his program take steps in the right direction this spring.
That was all — nothing flashy; no lofty expectations in the inaugural season of his head-coaching career. Simply, glimpses that the Owls were taking encouraging strides under his guidance would suffice. If those desires of his were to be granted, he’d be a happy man entering the off-season months of summer.
What ultimately unfolded at the state championships at Mesa Community College on May 4 blindsided Espinoza: The Agua Fria girls’ 4x100 relay team captured the Division II state title with a time of 48.19.
The contingent, made up of freshman Jaida Steward, sophomore Neveah Cole and juniors Riley Roberts and Tyya Skaggs, set a new personal best and school record with their time in the finals round.
This, though immensely welcomed, wasn’t really supposed to happen.
“We never really had the mindset of trying to win it,” Roberts said. “The relay was more of a fun event that we did consistently and really well.”
Perhaps they were naïve to the notion that a state title was within reach, but the writing was on the wall. Their relay team had improved leaps and bounds all spring. Not once during the regular season did they have competition, Espinoza said. They simply blew every opponent out of the water.
“Every invite we had gone to, we had been so far ahead of the other teams that there was always a substantial gap that nobody was running next to us,” Espinoza said. “When you run relays, you want to have that gap between you and someone else, but you don’t want to have so much of a gap that you can’t even feel the feel the presence to where anybody is going to push you.”
On May 4, and even days before at the preliminaries, they were finally pushed. Among the state’s most elite runners, the Owls had opposing relay teams breathing down their necks during the race.
“And so our girls had to push a little harder,” Espinoza said. “They finally got to that level of competition.”
After competing at the preliminary events on May 1, the Owls’ 4x100 group earned the two-seed going into the state finals. Their time of 48.19 edged second-place Cactus Shadows, who finished with a 48.71 clip.
“I credit our hard work, consistency and determination to winning the 4x100m relay and becoming the state champions in that event. We worked so hard from pre-season through the whole season and had been chasing after that first place at every track meet,” Roberts said.
Much to the chagrin of opposing teams, all four members of the Owls’ championship 4x100 relay team are set to return next spring. “Back-to-back state champions” has a charming ring to it, and it’s something they believe is within their grasp.
“It’s a high probability for us coming back next year and dominating just like we did this past year, we are going to work hard to go back to back and win that gold,” Roberts said.
Because of their first-place finish, the Owls’ 4x100 relay team was invited to the Meet of Champions, a bonus weekend of competition amongst all champions from every division in the state. The meet was on May 9 at Arizona State University. Results were not available at print time.
Had you told Espinoza that, in his first season as a track-and-field head coach, he’d have four state champions in his program after year one, he might’ve humbly balked at the idea. It’s not that he didn’t believe he had the personnel to do it; he just simply wasn’t focused on results this spring.
But the results are in, and they look awfully ravishing for the future of Agua Fria’s track-and-field program.
“It kind of just validates what we, as coaches, have been teaching and what our hopes of the program are,” he said. “You stick with the program, believe what we’re doing, commit. The results will be there as long as you put forth the effort.
“It’s very positive for us as a program because it’s like, ‘Yes, what we’re doing is working. Now, if we get everyone to buy in, fully commit to this, then we should be able to send more athletes and more relay teams to state in the years coming.’”