Led by rookie head coach David Espinoza and a prominent presence of underclassmen, the Agua Fria High School track team has raced off to a quick start to begin the season.
The Owls opened the regular season with an eighth-place finish out of 21 schools at the Buckeye Invitational on March 2. The following week, the Agua Fria girls’ team finished fifth place out of 17 schools at the Becky Mathews Open Meet in Phoenix.
The competition in Phoenix was mainly geared for underclassmen, but because it was considered an open meet, all grade levels were invited to compete.
Espinoza and the Owls sent a good chunk of freshmen and sophomores to Phoenix, and the head coach is charmed by the results.
“We had a couple freshmen set some really good PRs in the mile time. If they continue on track with that, there’s a potential that they actually go to state for that,” said Espinoza, who has been on the school’s track and field coaching staff for seven seasons.
One freshman has particularly caught the eye of Espinoza.
It was Oscar Gonzales, one of the many underclassmen who competed at the Becky Mathews meet, courtesy of his sub-5-minute mile time.
Espinoza had become aware of Gonzales when he coached cross country last fall.
“He got to state in cross country, and he brought that culture over (to track). It’s that mentality of ‘I want to work, I want to work, I want to work.’
“He got to track, he’s having fun and working hard and he’s already breaking that 5 minutes. He’s really made a huge impact.”
Gonzales figures to be one of a handful of Owls who represent Agua Fria at the state championship in May.
Last season, Agua Fria sent 12 kids to the state tournament. The following year, it was nine. There’s a pattern in place, and it’s a goal of Espinoza’s to increase the number of kids they send to the state championship round this spring.
“This is kind of the trend that we’ve been having in the past couple of years. This year is looking pretty well,” Espinoza said, citing the growing number of athletes who have already increased their throws, jumps and race-times since the start of the season in February.
“It’s looking very positive on that end. It’s one of the goals – send more kids to state than we have the year before.”
While the number of kids competing in the state tournament is set to climb, the roster size has grown considerably, too.
The Owls had a roster of 80 kids last spring. There are 120 this season.
Espinoza, who graduated from Agua Fria in 2012 and teaches world history there, has a hunch as to why there’s a sudden spark of interest in track around campus.
“One thing I’m a firm believer in when it comes to any kind of coaching program: Yes, we want the kids to work hard. Yes, we want them to succeed. But, fundamentally for these kids, it’s ‘I want to go out and get better but I want to have fun doing it.’ One of my philosophies is work, but have fun.”
Espinoza believes if the athletes are truly enjoying what they’re doing every day at practice, they’re going to put forth more effort.
When Espinoza ran track at Agua Fria years ago, he started a tradition of a year-end water balloon fight at practice. It was a way to “break up the tension” with the state tournament approaching, and as temperatures climb, too.
During spring break last week, the Owls’ throwers had a conditioning practice that consisted of them playing a Frisbee game. It’s a “change of pace,” he said, and a way for the kids to look forward to coming to practice.
The Owls are having fun and the results are starting to show, too. Espinoza has put forth a laudable effort to ensuring Agua Fria is well represented at the state tournament this year, as well as years beyond this spring.
“It’s a big relief considering two-thirds of our team is freshmen and sophomores, so a lot of the kids we rely on for points – we have a good number that are juniors and seniors. But, it’s really nice once they graduate that we have these young kids who are already going to the invites and qualifying. Longevity wise, the program is looking good.”