Tonto Apache Track Team Brings Home Hardware

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A fresh, new chapter is being written in the rich and storied history of the Tonto Apache Track and Field team.

The first page in the latest episode opened Feb. 4 with 21 fledgling athletes turning out for the 2006 edition of a team that has drawn the respect and admiration of sports fans around the country.

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Tonto Apache track and field coach Billy Joe Winchester expects Ressa Johnson to become one of the better shot-putters in her bantam girls age/sex group.

Since the inception of the team in 1998, it has traveled the country competing in USA Track and Field regional meets, Junior Olympics, city championships, Grand Canyon State Games and the Lori Piestewa Native American Games.

Its travels have taken young athletes to El Paso, Texas; Omaha, Neb.; Las Vegas, Denver, Scottsdale, Provo, Utah; and Miami, Fla.

Since the team's founding, it has also received the prestigious Jim Thorpe Award, the 2000 Grand Canyon State Games Outstanding Male and Female Athletes trophy, and in 2001 coach Billy Joe Winchester received the Arizona Governor's Outstanding Leadership Award.

Earning the Grand Canyon State Games Outstanding Athletes award represented a huge accomplishment in that GC executive director Erik Widmark and his staff broke with tradition in giving the award to the tribal squad.

The prestigious award had always gone to individual males and females who had excelled in the annual amateur competitions.

That year, however, Widmark chose the Tontos over a long list of outstanding individuals.

Among the reasons officials decided to honor the Tonto team was its success at both the Tucson and Tempe edition of the games.

In four years, the Tonto Apaches had won more than 100 medals.

But the selection guidelines also included rather stringent criteria for high character and morals.

"That's another reason we chose them," Widmark said. "We knew they'd be good representatives."

As Athletes of the Year, the Tonto teams represented the GC games at almost every track and field ceremony and competition held in Arizona that year.

Among the team's honorary duties was leading the Parade of Athletes into the Grand Canyon games' opening ceremonies at then-Bank One Ballpark.

"That was a big thrill for our kids," Winchester said.

Leading a parade into a professional baseball park might have been a culture shock of sorts for a group of athletes with such humble athletic origins.

The team, which is believed to be the only Native American-sponsored track and field squad in America, sprung up amid meager, ragtag beginnings on the small Tonto Apache reservation south of Payson.

Without any outdoor facilities, the athletes practiced on vacant lots fashioning a shot-put and discus ring from plywood.

"You really don't need all those facilities if you have heart," Winchester said.

As an example of its humble origins, Winchester often tells the story of one of its most successful athletes of the 2000 season -- 11-year-old Charlie Lopez.

Winchester said the youngster's interest in the discus was sparked in the spring when he found a discarded discus under some brush on the reservation. The youngster took it home, where his father repaired it for practice and competition.

By summer, the boy was taking it everywhere he went, Winchester said.

His commitment resulted in his winning a gold medal at the Tucson GC games in early June.

The remainder of the summer, he went on to become one of the most accomplished young athletes on the amateur circuit.

"It was great what he did," Winchester said.

Also in the early years, the team drew some of the Rim Country's finest athletes including both tribal and nontribal members. Among them were Taylor Walden, Derrick Hoosava, Valentino Doka, Cassandra Cly, Mike Waterman and Ben Kreiger.

Walden, a nontribal member, was thrilled he was allowed to compete.

"I'm glad they gave me the chance; it was fun and I learned a lot," he said.

In 2003, 73-year-old Tom Cooka, a Hopi tribal member and Senior Olympic gold medal winner, became the eldest member of the team.

Following a Lori Piestewa meet, Cooka said, "It was so much fun for me to watch all those youngsters on the tribe team compete and do so well."

Newest team

The 2006 Tonto Apache team opened the season Feb. 4 at a U.S.A. meet held at Glendale Community College. Although several team members could not compete due to previous commitments, five athletes earned medals, all in the shot-put competition.

Cassie Johnson was first among the midget girls, and Johnson's younger sister, Ressa, competing in her first-ever meet, was the gold medal winner in the beginning girls division.

Winchester lauded the younger Johnson, saying, "She is starting off just like her big sister."

Kindall Begay won the youth women's championship; Shane Levine was second among the intermediate boys; and Jarred Begay third in the same division.

Next up for the tribal team is the Arizona Indoor Classic Feb. 19 on the campus of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff.

Highlights of the 2006 schedule include appearances at the Bobcat Relays at Mesa Community College (March 4), the Phoenix Invitational (April 1 to 2), the Las Vegas Invitational (May 8), and the Junior Olympic championships in Phoenix (June 10 to 11 and June 17 to 18) and the Youth Athletics Nationals in Greensboro, N.C. (June 27 to July 2).

If any team members should qualify for the J.O. National Championships, they will be held July 25 to 30 in Greensboro, N.C.

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