WALLA WALLA - In his 33 years as head track and field coach at DeSales, Mike Michels has just about seen it all.
The 62-year-old Michels has coached two of his Irish teams to state championships - the 1992 girls team and the 1999 boys squad - and numerous other teams have placed high at state.
"Our girls had two other second-place finishes and two thirds," Michels recalled. "And our boys had a fourth-place finish."
Some of his teams have achieved success through depth, others were the result of a few gifted individual athletes.
The 1992 girls state championship team is perfect example of the latter. Although there were only five girls in the program that spring, all five qualified for state and won four events to bring home the title.
"Quality really counts at state," Michels said. "And that was the case in 1992 when five girls scored 40 points and we won the championship."
Michels also remembers the 2003 state meet when the Irish took eight girls to state, scored 105 points and finished second.
"You can also take a bunch of kids and place in a bunch of events and do well," Michels said. "There are definitely two ways to do it."
And team success isn't the only way to measure a track and field program's success, Michels is quick to point out.
"We've coached 22 (individual) state champions over the years," the coach said. "And there are probably 70 or more others who have placed at state."
Michels arrived at DeSales in the fall of 1973. In addition to his social studies teaching duties, he served as the Irish's boys head basketball coach for nine seasons, was an assistant football coach for 10 years and has been the head track coach for 33 of his 38 years at the school.
"I did track my first five years," Michels said. "But when I became head basketball coach, that was kind of hard, so I dropped track for five years and then picked it back up again."
Michels remains involved in basketball as one of Jeff Reinland's assistant coaches in the Walla Walla Community College men's program.
He approaches his 34th track and field campaign at DeSales, as always, with optimistic enthusiasm and loads of energy. And this year's turnout of 22 athletes "is right in the middle" of what he generally anticipates at this time of year.
"There's just no set pattern, really," Michels said. "We've had as few as 15 and as many as 35. We usually average right around 20, boys and girls combined."
This year's roster is top heavy with boys and underclassmen. There are only five girls among this year's Irish track athletes, and 14 of the 22 are either freshmen or sophomores.
"We have a lot of youth and a lot of inexperience," Michels said. "But they are very enthusiastic and coachable. It's fun to go to practice."
And there are at least three state-caliber athletes on this year's team.
Senior Nick Wales, who specializes in the hurdle events, placed fourth at last year's Class 2B state meet in the 300-meter intermediate hurdles. Senior Anthony Brown placed fifth at state last spring in the discus. And sophomore Allison Wujek placed fourth at state in the high jump and was seventh in the long jump as a freshman.
"Nick has a good chance to go back to state this year and place even higher," Michels' said of Wales' potential in the 300 hurdles. "That is his main event, although he will also run relays for us and compete in the long jump.
"He could do a ton of stuff, really, but the 3s are what he really focuses on. And we will make sure he gets a lot of work on that this spring."
Brown also competes in the shot put and the javelin, Michels said, but the discus is his best event.
"He's looking good early again this year," Michels said. "He could throw in the 140s this year and be a threat to medal at state. That's if he gets there, of course."
Wujek, who last spring tied Erin Hellberg's school-record high jump of 5 feet, 2 inches set in 1995, is nursing a hamstring injury to begin her sophomore season.
"We're taking it slow with her until she gets fully healthy," Michels said. "She's a multi-talented girl who also runs the hurdles and went to state last year but didn't place."
The only other girls on this year's team are senior Liezel Lenhart, junior Brigit Lyons and freshmen Kathia Jimenez and Genesis Cruzaley.
Lyons, who runs the hurdles and long jumps, has the most experience and possibly the greatest potential of the four.
"She's multi-faceted," Michels said of his lone junior girl. "She can do a lot of things for us. Hurdles, long jump, she will probably run some sprints. And also part of a relay team if we have one."
Lenhart is a sprinter, Jimenez sprints and long jumps and Cruzaley specializes in the throwing events.
Other senior boys on the team are Jacob Heikkenen, Jesus Lara, Joab Neri and Matt Zimmerman; junior Ton Valinluck; sophomores Juan Cortez, Braden Kimball, Jean Emile Leconte, Angel Martinez, Sergio Pena and Keaton Sullivan; and freshmen Andrew Elmenhurst, Dominic Kjeldgaard, Christian Lopez and Isaiah Scheel.
Heikkenen, Lara and Zimmerman will focus on the weights, Michels said. Neri runs the distances races.
Valinluck specializes in the short races.
Cortez's focus is in the middle-distance races, Kimball offers the unusual combination of shot put and 1,600, and Leconte will triple jump and enter relay events. Martinez is a sprinter and long jumper, Pena will run the hurdles and relays as well as triple jump, and Sullivan is another distance runner.
Elmenhurst is also a jumper and a potential member of relay teams. Kjeldgaard is a combination sprinter-distance runner and another relay prospect, Lopez is focusing on sprints and jumps, and Scheel, who is slowed by a groin injury, is another sprinter, jumper and relay member.
"I see a lot of potential," Michels said. "We have a lot of young kids and we just have to see how they develop. The main thing is getting them healthy and staying healthy."
Small-school track and field is healthy in Southeastern Washington, Michels is convinced.
"I think our area is really strong," he said. "Kids from our district always do very well at state. They are really competitive.
"Teams vary in size, but Waitsburg-Prescott, Asotin and Pomeroy always seem to have bigger teams. And this year St. John-Endicott has combined with Lacrosse-Washtucna, so they should have greater numbers."
The Irish were scheduled to open their 2012 season in an all-district meet at Clarkston on Wednesday. But a spring snowstorm forced the meet to be postponed, possibly canceled.
"They will try to reschedule," Michels said. "But this time of year it can be kind of difficult to fit it in."
DeSales is now scheduled to compete for the first time this coming Wednesday in another all-district meet at Shockman Field in Milton-Freewater. Michels' focus remains well down the road.
"What we are trying to do is get our kids ready for the end of the year," he said. "We will continue do a lot of heavy training in March and then start hitting them hard on event training and technique in April.
"We aren't always very good to start the year out, but we tend to get better as the year goes on. We don't want them burning out in April.
"We want to peak in May, not March. That is always our goal."