When Mike Ramos arrived as boys track coach at Duarte High School two years ago, the program was at rock bottom.
The Falcons, never regarded as a track power, had not won a dual meet at any level--varsity, junior varsity or freshman-sophomore--the previous season and optimism was not running rampant.
Duarte's fortunes have taken a dramatic change for the better since then.
When the CIF state track championships start Friday at Cerritos College in Norwalk, the once-lowly Falcons will be among the favorites.
Ramos, 32, who accumulated his coaching savvy as an assistant for six years at track power Lynwood High, says a state championship for Duarte is not out of the question.
"Maybe I'm being overly optimistic but I think we'll do very well and score very high," he said. "Of course, we still have to qualify Friday. So I know that anything can happen."
Qualifying in field events starts at 11 a.m. and at 5 p.m. for running events. The finals start at noon Saturday.
How have the Falcons been transformed from doormat to powerhouse so quickly?
Ramos credits much of the success to the rapid emergence of two sprinters, junior Martin Cannady and senior Cedric Coleman.
Cannady, Duarte's top performer, has broken school records in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, the 110-meter high hurdles and the 300-meter low hurdles. He also anchors Duarte's 400- and 1,600-meter relay teams that have established school records.
Beaten Badly at Arcadia
Cannady had difficulties against top competition at the Arcadia Invitational in April, finishing seventh in the 100 and 200. But he has improved steadily, especially since the start of CIF Southern Section post-season meets three weeks ago.
He turned in blistering first-place times of 10.59 seconds in the 100 and 21.31 in the 200 at the CIF Masters Meet last week.
"I think he's relaxing better," Ramos said. "He's not pressing as much. In some of the meets, like Arcadia, he was just trying too hard.
"There are a lot of factors (in his improvement), but most of all it's him. He's hungry, he wants it and he has earned it."
Coleman also has looked strong in post-season meets, including last week at the Masters when he posted a third-place time of 48.33 in the 400-meter dash.
Duarte, which has qualifiers in five events, will have Cannady in the 100 and 200 and both relays and Coleman in the 400 and the relays.
Ramos admits placing a heavy burden on two athletes, but he has not had much choice with an enrollment of only 900 students.
"We're a small school and we don't have the numbers of athletes like a Muir or a Hawthorne. So we have to spread our people more thin."
Even with the depth problem, Duarte has two more qualifiers in the state championships than Southern Section 4-A powers Muir, Hawthorne and Simi Valley.
Successful but Unheralded
"We didn't get as much attention as Muir or Hawthorne," Ramos said. "Even after we finished second in the CIF (3-A Division), people didn't really notice us. But I sort of felt that by this time we would be in the hunt (for the title)."
Ramos is expecting his team's toughest competition to come from L. A. City champion Taft of Woodland Hills, Roosevelt of San Francisco and Johnson of Sacramento. Taft, which also has five qualifiers, is led by sophomore sprinter Quincy Watts.
"I think we have a chance because there's not really a dominant team," Ramos said. "There's not one team that I think should be called the favorite."
Win or lose, it has already been a satisfying year for Ramos and his coaching staff.
"If we all dropped dead tomorrow, we've still had a tremendous year. In dual meets we went undefeated and we finished second in the 3-A. I don't think we could ask for much more than that."
Except maybe a state championship.