June 7, 2006 - In the next decade, the graduating class of Catalina Foothills High School will gather for its class reunion. In some swanky banquet hall, they'll sit around and talk up the good old days when life was carefree, exciting and open to wherever the world was about to take them.
At some point during the evening, probably sooner than later, the conversation will shift to the 2005-06 school year when it seemed no one could touch the Falcons on the courts, fields, pools and golf courses of Southern Arizona and beyond. Of course, by then the stories will have benefited from a decade's worth of inflation but it won't matter because that time tested mantra that every coach preached back then came true: once you win a state championship, no one can ever take that away from you.
The 2005-06 academic school year for the athletic teams of Catalina Foothills was the most successful season - in terms of team and individual state titles - in the school's 14-year history.
From cross country to boys volleyball, Foothills and its 750 student-athletes flexed their muscles once again by dominating the sports landscape and winning their fourth consecutive Class 4A H.A. Hendrickson Overall Excellence Award - an honor given to the conference's top team for athletics and academics.
The streak was made possible with the help of five programs that repeated as state champs, including boys and girls swimming, boys and girls tennis and girls soccer. The girls cross country and the boys soccer and volleyball teams also added titles. The school's swim and track and field teams split nine more individual state titles, bringing the Falcon's championship hardware tally on the year up to 19.
With eight state team titles and a slew of individual championships, 2005-06 may have been a banner year for Falcons' athletics but it was by no means a stretch from what has become the norm for the Class 4A school.
Foothills' sports isn't simply benefiting from a talented crop of athletes that coincidentally convened at the school during the same era. As the multi-sport athletes begin their slow fade into oblivion so to is the notion of the off-season. Championship teams and players at Foothills are honing their skills outside of the high schools through clubs, academies and private lessons.
"It's the same in soccer, swimming, volleyball and tennis, they all belong to these outside clubs and that's basically the only way you can get really good," said Foothills boys tennis coach Robb Salant, who's Falcon squad captured its second straight 4A title.
While Salant's crew has been as dominant as any team over the last two seasons, when it comes to winning, the girls tennis team has everyone beat.
The girls tennis team of Catalina Foothills hasn't let another high school win a Class 4A state title since the millennium began, winning seven straight. For the girls and head coach Kristie Stevens, winning breeds winning. Since the program's first year in 1992 when the school only had freshmen, girls tennis has dominated winning seven team titles, six singles and four doubles state championships.
Like Salant, Steven's squad has risen to power from a talented crop of players who spend nearly the entire year focusing on tennis.
"I think this is a trend for most sports is that they don't get the opportunity to play one sport," said Stevens who has been with the program since it was founded. "It's almost as if in order to be the best, they have to really dedicate all of their time and training into that one sport."
The bulk of Foothills tennis players, both boys and girls, practice year round at clinics at Randolph Tennis Center and the Tucson Racquet and Fitness Club. With the success of the program, it would be easy for Stevens to sit back and take credit for molding a championship squad year after year. But the coach won't do that.
"I honestly will tell you, I wouldn't necessarily take credit for it," said Stevens.
Both Stevens and Salant deserve credit for instilling a team-first attitude in a sport often reserved for individual glory.
"Teaching them the team concept and learning how to play competitively as part of a team, whether it be high school or college, if anything I hope that that was the experience that I gave them."
Tennis isn't alone when it comes to training its elite players outside of the school season. The top soccer, swimming and volleyball club teams throughout Southern Arizona are strewn with Foothills players.
The school's swim team is second only to girls tennis when it comes to consecutive state titles. The boys and girls swim teams have each won six straight.
The swim program has greatly benefited from former head coach Nicole Sayers-Penkalski's relationship with University of Arizona swimming. The Falcons have called the UA Hillenbrand Aquatic Center - the former headquarters of a handful of Olympians - home for a number of years for both its practices and home meets.
Hillenbrand is also home to Tucson Ford Aquatic, one of the most dominant swim clubs in Southern Arizona. Among the athletes on Tucson Ford - a club for elite high school and college swimmers - are roughly 25 of Foothills' 70 to 80 swimmers.
The next closest school to Foothills with swimmers on Tucson Ford is Rincon/University High School with nine. The last year that Rincon and Foothills had close to the same number of swimmers on Tucson Ford was 2002. By no coincidence, the two finished that year No. 1 and No. 2 at the state meet with Foothills winning its third of its six straight titles.
This fall, the program will aim for state title No. 7 without Sayers-Penkalski, who stepped down and moved to California after winning the program's most recent championship in November. Foothills has a new coach lined up, but school administrators said a successor will be named later in the summer.
During the season, it's common for the athletes who swim for both Foothills and Tucson Ford to work out with their club team during the week and swim only in the school's meets.
Roric Fink believes it's not necessarily a case where many Foothills swimmers come to his club, rather Tucson Ford members heading up to be a part of the winning tradition of the Falcons.
"It may even be a little bit of a socio-economic factor," said Fink, who took over Tucson Ford in the fall of 2000 when it was still known as Hillenbrand of Tucson and catered to swimmers of all ages. The fall of 2000 was the first year of the Falcons' state winning streak. "Swimming is one of what they call one of the 'country club' sports."
The average Foothills household earns between $65,000 to $77,000 a year and thus can afford to spend the roughly $100 a month dues of Tucson Ford and other clubs.
Foothills swimming also has benefited from the indirect recruiting of Fink.
"Because of the good relationship that I've had with the school, if I have a good athlete that's moving into town and asking where they should go, I recommend that they go there because I know that they'll be able to continue to train that athlete the way that athlete needs to be trained to try and make it out of the smaller fish bowl that is high school swimming, trying to make it nationally or internationally."
Bryan O'Connor is an example. O'Connor, who graduated in May, was already an accomplished swimmer when he and his mother relocated to Tucson in 2004. O'Connor came to Tucson to swim under Fink and Tucson Ford and on the coach's advice moved into the district.
The move paid off for the Falcons in the form of O'Connor's first place finishes at the November state meet in the 100-yard backstroke, 200-yard freestyle relay and 400-yard freestyle relay.
With club athletics dominating the majority of the year, playing multiple sports is becoming a thing of the past, said Foothills girls soccer head coach Charlie Kendrick, who also coaches at the Tucson Soccer Academy, one of the largest and preeminent soccer clubs in Southern Arizona.
The Falcons have won two consecutive state soccer titles and three in the last four years with nearly 100 percent of its players taking part in some form of club soccer.
In soccer, the same as it is in practically all of the "country club" sports, college recruiting is done through the clubs and rarely on the high school level.
With scholarships coming in from club sports it would be easy for a student athlete to skip the high school team. Yet, that is not the case.
"There's an added excitement to want to do well in front of your peers," said Kendrick of what keeps high school sports alive. "It's more of a social thing."
Other programs build their dynasties in the off-season but do it as a team, rather than splitting up into the local club leagues. Baseball and girl's golf are among those teams.
The girls golf team has taken advantage of head coach Mark Polich's more than 30 years of golf experience. Polich, the only coach the program has known, has built the team from an intramural sport to a state title in 2004, sandwiching between runner-up titles in 2003 and 2005.
"I feel like the golf team has a completely different feeling than the tennis team, especially this year," said Jesse Bluestein, who plays for the Falcons' tennis team and Arizona Rush Club Soccer. "We spent a ton of time together, traveling and playing in tournaments where the coach actually works with us and teaches us."
When it comes to dominating Southern Arizona sports, some are quick to point out that Foothills has only won state titles in "country club" sports, aided by its affluent student body who can afford state-of-the-art facilities and equipment as well as world-class trainers. Of the school's 37 state team titles, none have come in the "mainstream" sports of baseball, basketball and football.
Yet that may be changing. Despite the lack of a state title, Foothill's baseball team has been one of the most dominant programs in Southern Arizona in the last decade. Like the "country club" sports, baseball has reaped the benefits of its off-season programs. Whereas many - soccer, swim and volleyball athletes - will split up and join the enemy on club teams around town, Foothills baseball players stick primarily to themselves. In the summer, the program's teams will play as Foothills traveling throughout the city to face other high schools as well as traveling to Phoenix and neighboring states to play tournaments.
In the winter, the Falcons deploy their Ironcon strength and conditioning program. The 10-week winter conditioning series is legendary for whipping players into game shape through vigorous exercises. The result is longer stamina during the later part of the season when other teams are wearing thin.
In 10 years, the Falcons have won 281 games to just 78 losses and have appeared in the 4A state title game in three of the last five years.
With 1,867 students, Foothills sits dangerously close to the 5A and 4A cutoff of 1,899. Only five 4A Division I schools - Lake Havasu, McClintock, Pinnacle, Pueblo and Sahuaro high schools - have more students and not nearly as many state titles combined in the last five years.
By limiting open enrollment, however, Foothills is able to stay in the 4A Division I. In doing so, it avoids the likes of powerhouse schools like Tucson's Salpointe Catholic and a host of schools from Phoenix. Some of the Falcons' teams would be able to compete on the 5A level, swimming being one of those. Programs such as football and basketball would likely run into difficulty competing against schools with as many as 3,500 students.
"The smaller sports could certainly be competitive but they certainly wouldn't win eight state championships like they did this year," said Salant. "Although swimming and soccer are very strong, most of the coaches don't want to go to 5A, I'd guess."
Chances are strong Foothills will stay in the 4A and continue to reload and dominate yet another post-season. And in 10 years, when they all gather to reminisce about the olden days, no matter where life has taken them, they'll always be able to look back on the time when no one was better.