Leading Edge Academy is a charter school on a busy corner at Ray and Cooper roads.
Surrounded by businesses, there is no room for a track.
But that hasn’t stopped the Arizona Interscholastic Association school from starting a track and field program this year.
Led by head coach Ryan Johnston and his 8-year-old son Braxton, the team walks a mile from Gilbert to Chandler to a community park, where sometimes someone walking a dog makes suggestions on workouts.
“We just hope that running doesn’t cause the dog to chase,” Johnston said.
None of the athletes ran track before.
But there is a stud athlete in the group who already has qualified for the Division IV state championships in early May at Mesa Community College.
Senior Daija Sample, who helped key the school’s first 2A girls state basketball championship in 2018, qualified in the 100, 200 and 400 meters.
“I always had a desire to do track,” Sample said. “I thought I’d be good at it. But I don’t know because basketball was my main sport. I thought, I might as well try it.”
It was actually Sample, who kept asking her basketball coach, Erik Gray, to start a track program. Gray is also the school’s athletic director.
“The familiarity with starting and the turns has been something she has learned on the fly, thus we expect her time to improve quite a bit as the season progresses,” Gray said of Sample.
The warm-up is getting to the park to practice.
“I thought about having them actually jog,” said Johnston, who was state champion Gilbert Campo Verde’s sprints coach last year.
Because of a lack of track facilities, LEA doesn’t do the long jump, high jump, pole vault or javelin. There are throwers for the discus and shot who practice twice a week.
Johnston sets up a few hurdles on the grass to jump over. There’s even a little hurdle for his son.
Johnston knew it would be challenging to get kids to come out for a team without a track.
“The first question was, ‘Coach, where are we going to practice?’ ” Johnston said. “It was one of those things we did on a fly. We thought we had a track lined up with another school. That fell through at the last minute.
“We ended up coming here. The challenge is not a lot of kids know about the program.”
Johnston said he has 15 kids between the boys and girls program, but he has to share some of them with the boys volleyball team.
“It’s a small group, but that way we get to work on a lot of techniques,” Johnston said.
It’s no surprise Sample, who committed to NAIA Park University, qualified for state.
“She told me before she thought of transferring to a school when she was younger that had a track team just to be able to do it,” Johnston said. “But she stuck it out and got Erik to do it. She loves it.”
Sample was a top-five sprinter in the seeded division at the Chandler Rotary Invitational.
This is a work in progress, one in which Sample can be the person who draws more athletes to come out.
There are no distances marked on the park for the athletes.
“We just feel it out,” Sample said. “Before, when I’d run what I figured was 100 meters, this felt so far. It kept going forever.”
She doesn’t remember her times, only that she’s excited about going to state.
“I want to improve every practice, every meet,” Sample said. “This program has a good way to go. Time will tell.”
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