End-of-year banquets often provide a chance for teams to celebrate a season of hard work and achievements along the way. But this year’s Nogales High School track banquet also paid tribute to a legendary team from a generation past.
Several members of the 1975 NHS track team, which set multiple records and won the state championship, reunited at the current team’s 2019 banquet in May.
Eric Romero, the team’s high jump coach and father of 2019 state champion high jumper Sabina Romero, had the idea to bring the 1975 team back together.
“It’s a pretty cool story,” he said. “They won state as a team and I wanted to give them recognition that they were due.”
Romero was a jumper for NHS in the late 1970s and knew about the famous 1975 team and their star runner Ted Simpson. In advance of the 2019 banquet, he called Oscar Islas, a three-time state champion in the 880 yards and part of the state champion mile relay team.
“I told him (Islas) about it and the first thing he says: ‘I’m in,’” Romero recalled.
With a few more phone calls, several members of the 1975 squad agreed to join, including Simpson, the 1975 state champion in the 100 and 200 yards and anchor of the 440-yard relay; Ernie Valencia, a top high-jumper; Ernesto “Nets” Reyes; Tony Sotelo, a member of the 440-yard relay team; Rudy Ibarra, member of the 440 and mile relays; as well as Raul Romero, who ran with the 1976 mile relay team that earned a second-consecutive state title for Nogales in that event.
Some of the 1975 athletes have settled down in the area: Valencia lives in Tucson, Simpson in Sierra Vista and Islas has returned to Nogales.
But they even convinced the 1975 team’s coach, Tom Radkey, to fly in from Wyoming.
“Many kids went up to them, started talking to them” at the banquet, Romero said.
“I think they didn’t realize that we were still around,” Islas joked.
A fateful flip of the coin
The reunion also gave the former athletes a chance to bring back memories of a close finish and sweet victory more than four decades earlier.
Islas remembered feeling overmatched going into the 1975 state track meet against bigger teams with more athletes.
“Most people came in a bus, and we came in a van,” he said.
But a handful of fast runners made Nogales competitive at the state level.
“We had four guys that could run 50 seconds on a lap,” Islas recalled, “We had Ted Simpson with the 100 and the 200, we had good 440 people, I had the 880, then we had the mile relay, we had the long jump. We had a person for almost every event.”
Nearing the end of the meet, Valencia said, he had a chance to secure the state championship for Nogales by winning the high jump.
He set the bar at six feet, well below his personal best, but failed to clear it.
“Because of jumping early in the afternoon (in the long jump), by the time the high jump came around, which was later in the evening, I had no legs,” he remembered. “I was just killed. I was very, very distraught.”
The meet ended with Nogales and Bisbee locked in a tie. With all the events completed, officials turned to a coin to decide the state champion.
“They flipped it, and in the air I called it head,” Valencia said. “When it landed head, I grabbed that state trophy, I said ‘I’ll see you guys later!’ And off we went!”
The trophy, which is still on display at NHS, represents a title that the school has not won again in the 44 years since that coin toss.
Romero hopes that meeting the 1975 athletes will help encourage current team members.
“These guys did it,” he said. “We can do something, too.”
Islas said that some of the young athletes asked him about the 1975 team’s secret to success: “they wanted to know how we did it.”
His answer was simple.
“We were all just like you… we helped each other, we coached each other, and that’s how we got to there. We were all just a bunch of kids.”