Commentary: Mingus runners play pivotal role in history of Arizona distance talent
Tuba City’s Billy Orman became a legend last weekend in what likely is the end of one of the greatest waves of high school distance running in Arizona history.
At the Arizona State Track and Field Championships Friday and Saturday in Mesa, Orman clocked in at 4-minutes 6.75-seconds for 1,600 meters (just shy of 1-mile for all you old-timers) and 8:48.63 for 3,200 meters. His times rank the Tuba City senior among the top 2 in the nation in both events.
Impressive, yes, but what’s equally impressive is that Orman only finally placed himself at the top of the heap of the current crop of Arizona prep distance runners. Until this past weekend, most observers would still give that nod to Flagstaff Sinagua (now Oregon) runner Brian Shrader, a 13-time Arizona state champion at 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters on the track and three straight state titles in cross country.
Consider this: Until 2009, only four runners in Arizona history had dipped below 9-minutes for 3,200-meters (again, for you old-timers, that’s just shy of 2 miles). Two years later, nine runners added their names to that magic list.
The current floodgates were opened in 2009 when Mingus runner Tim Freriks clocked an 8:58 in Arcadia, Calif. A year later, Shrader went 8:53 and Queen Creek’s Sherod Hardt and Steve Magnuson of Ironwood Ridge also dipped under 9.
There have been two other distinct waves of Arizona high school distance talent since the 1970s, and in each era, another Mingus runner like Freriks was right in the midst of the mix.
Beginning in 1974 and continuing through 1979, Arizona arguably had its greatest concentration ever of quality prep distance talent.
There were several contributing factors.
First, races in that era were still run with the old mile and two-mile configuration. Thus, the sport had an audience that better understood the basic concept of time vs. distance. Even the casual observer understood the significance of a sub 4:20 mile or a two-mile that eclipsed the 10-minute barrier. Even today after all these years of the metrification of the sport, people scratch their heads when a kid tells them their time for 1600 meters. We gave away the audience when the sport was converted to metric distances.
Second, an entire nation of high school kids was still caught up in the magic of Jim Ryun and Marty Liquori breaking 4-minutes for the mile while still in high school. Ryun and Liquori spawned the generation of Steve Prefontaine, Frank Shorter and the “running boom.”
Finally, Casa Grande’s George Young -- arguably the most accomplished Olympic distance runner in American history – had enormous influence on Arizona high school runners in the ’70s. Getting a nod from George Young was a sign that you had arrived.
The years between 1974-79 produced some of the best runners Arizona has ever seen. The pinnacle of this era came in 1975 when Amphi's David Shoots and Tempe's Kirk Dobstaff finished the two-mile in a dead heat 9:04.5; the best race in Arizona history. By the time the decade ended, Mesa's Don Janicki and Glendale's Vito Perrone were both knocking on the door of a sub-9 2-mile and Janicki broke 4:10 in the mile.
The 1974 Class A state champion for 2-miles was Mingus’ Mike McFadden, coached by John O’Donnell … in an era when Mingus didn’t even have a track. McFadden owned the Mingus school record at 2-miles/3,200-meters for 35 years until Freriks came along. McFadden regularly slugged it out with the likes of Dysart’s Danny Moreno, an amazing talent in both the mile and half-mile who could come back at the end of the night and run a 50-flat mile relay leg. McFadden also regularly went head-to-head against Florence’s Class B mile and 2-mile state champ Ruben Reyes as well as the Class AA mile and 2-mile state champion Art Redhair of Snowflake, who went on to become a multi-time national champion and All American at 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and in cross country for Central Arizona College and Brigham Young University.
The mid- to late-70s also produced such noteworthy runners as Art Menchaca and Larry Martinez from Sunnyside, Trini Balderrama from North Phoenix, Steve Green from Buena-Sierra Vista, state champion miler Glenn Hoppe from Ajo, Tom Reynolds from Tucson-Catalina, Dave Barney from Scottsdale, Albert Skiba from Superior, Herman Sahneyah from Tuba City and our own Yavapai County Presiding Superior Court Judge Dave Mackey.
Fast forward to the early ‘90s: The years between 1990 and ’94 produced such impressive runners as Corona del Sol’s Ari Rodriguez (4:10), Ben Goodman (4:10) and Nathan Nutter (8:54) and Westwood’s Web Shelly (4:11). The Page twins, Tim and Theo Martin, dominated that era, though. Both were nationally elite runners and gobbled up countless state championships both on the track and in cross country.
The Martins’ seeming invincibility, though, was shattered by Mingus’ own Marc Marquez in the 1993 state championship race over 1,600 meters. Marquez upset the Martin twins that night with a 4:15 clocking in a chess-match mile. He came back the same night and ran a 1:57 over 800 meters. Mingus Coach Howie Usher did as fine a job of coaching Marquez as you’ll ever see. Over the last half of his senior year, Usher stepped Marquez down to a lot of 400-meter races and 4X400 relay legs. He avoided head-to-head clashes between Marquez and the Martin twins. When the state meet rolled around, Marquez had supreme confidence in his finishing kick and sure enough it was just enough win a state champions.
What Billy Orman accomplished this past weekend was in large part due to his individual commitment. But he was also highly fortunate to come along in an era when Arizona was loaded with distance running talent. Even on his own Tuba City team, when Orman was first attracting attention as a gangly sophomore, one of his own teammates, Ryan Yazzie, won state championships at 800, 1,600 and 3,200 meters.
It’s always been that way in Arizona. High school distance running seems to come in waves.
And every time it does, there’s always a Mingus runner right in the mix.