The Tonto Apache Track and Field team might soon have its first individual national champion.
The prospect of team member Hunter Doka becoming the nation's best shot putter in the bantam boys division became a reality at the 16th Annual Flagstaff Indoor Classic, held Feb. 18 in Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University.
There Doka set an age/division record with a winning toss of 9.61 meters, which broke the previous mark of 9.37 meters set in 1992.
Doka's efforts drew praise from coach Billy Joe Winchester who said, "He has a great chance to finish as the national champion if he keeps improving like he is."
Doka's outstanding performance wasn't his first.
In the summer of 2006, in the USATF Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships in Baltimore, Md., Doka threw the shot 24 feet, 4 inches to finish 15th among the 32 national qualifiers.
His older brother, Val, competing in the youth boys division, was 17th, with a heave of 38 feet, 8 inches. Twenty-nine national qualifiers competed in the division.
At the Flagstaff Indoor Classic, Val did not compete, due to a sore arm, Winchester said.
Others who represented the tribal team in the shot put at Flagstaff were Ressa Johnson (bantam girls; fourth), Cassie Johnson (midget girls; third), Andrea Hinton (midget girls; seventh), Shawntee Hinton (youth girls; seventh), Jarred Begay (intermediate boys; third), Jordan Hinton (intermediate boys; fourth), Shane Levins (intermediate boys; seventh) and Kindall Begay (young women; third).
A team goal for the Apache track and field squad members is to earn berths to the 2007 Junior Olympic Nations, which will be held at Mount SAC college near Walnut, Calif.
"It's a great throwing college," Winchester said.
The Tonto team, which is believed to be the only Native American-sponsored track and field squad in the United States, sprung up 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.
Soon after its founding, the team began traveling 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 also taken young athletes to El Paso, Texas, Omaha, Neb., Las Vegas, Nev., Denver, Colo., Scottsdale, Provo, Utah; and Miami, Fla.
Since the team's founding, it has 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.
In 2003, the team reached a pinnacle when 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."
In keeping with the Tonto team tradition of fielding outstanding athletes in the throws events, Cooka set aside his beloved long-distance running long enough to learn to throw the shot.
Later, in the Piestewa games, he won a gold medal in the shot put.