In his early days as a physical education instructor and track and field coach at Zama American, Mitch Moellendick was approached by teacher and former coach Lee Forrest.

“Be patient, Mitch. It takes about five years for things to start clicking,” Moellendick recalls being told by Forrest, who coached several teams for Zama in the 1970s and ’80s.

“Well, I’m on my sixth year. I’ve paid my dues. The kids have worked hard. It’s taken time to do it. It’s nice to be competitive,” Moellendick said of the up-and-coming Trojans program.

Zama is fielding 32 track and field athletes this spring, up from 14 a year ago and far more than the five or six Moellendick would regularly field in his early years.

And the roster features far more than just one star runner and a cast of struggling newbies. Besides junior distance runner Andrew Quallio, there’s distance specialist Kevin Blackburn, sprinters Miguel Rodriguez and Liz Powell, high jumpers Eric Tank and Danielle Franklin and long jumper Ashana Jackson.

Each contributed to Zama winning its invitational meet on March 15. The Trojans have won five of their six Kanto Plain Association of Secondary Schools dual meets and the boys placed sixth out of 14 teams in the Mike Petty meet on April 5 on Okinawa.

“It’s not so much winning, but being competitive,” Moellendick said. “To be able to compete. That’s what’s enjoyable, and the kids enjoy it, the fact that they’re being competitive. That brings out the best in them and makes them work harder.”

Quallio, in his second season as a Trojan after transferring from Sandalwood High in Jacksonville, Fla., beat his own school mile record (4:37.57) and tied Zama’s two-mile mark (9:58.95) at the Petty meet.

Rodriguez is already running the 100 in 11.36 seconds and Powell in 13.26. Tank also runs the 400 and has clocked as fast as 54.55.

“We’re a team. We have that team now and we’re making successes as a team, not just individual runners,” Quallio said.

“It’s not just Andrew per se,” Moellendick said. “You have to have a lot of spokes in the wheel to make it turn. And it’s turning. It’s the team doing well, not just one person.”

Hard work to make the team happen runs the gamut, coach and runners say, from hours on the practice field to recruiting in the hallways at school.

“We’ve gotten people excited about coming out,” Quallio said. “We’ve been advocating it around school.”

“People see what it’s like and spread the word. They want to be a part of it, too,” Blackburn said.

That recruiting has already paid dividends. Freshman Jacob Bishop seems to be Quallio’s heir apparent, in the mile (5:01) and two-mile (10:44).

“It’s unfortunate we didn’t have him for cross country,” said Quallio, the Far East cross country individual champion. “We’d have been a [team title] contender at Far East.”

The rise of the Trojans as a potential track power certainly has been noticed around the Kanto Plain.

“They’ve zoomed up the alphabet. The Z is no longer at the end of the list,” said Bruce Carrick, for 18 years an assistant at Christian Academy In Japan who’s had three children run for the Knights. “You go to the starting line, you’d better expect the black uniform to be competitive.”

That’s not to say that Zama will dominate immediately, Moellendick cautioned.

“It’s not definite that we’re going to win, but at least we’ll be in the fight,” he said. “We’re going to be competitive, and we should compete in almost any event.”

And unlike in past years, when Zama was only good as long as they had a lone standout athlete, the signs point toward a bright future with a much deeper talent pool.

“We’re here to stay. Definitely,” Quallio said.

Game of the weekBoys soccer

Zama American (5-1) at Yokota (5-1)

When: 5 p.m. TuesdayWhere: Bonk Field, Yokota High School, Yokota Air Base, Japan.What: Second regular-season meeting between the teams that share the best win-loss record among Department of Defense Dependents Schools-Japan teams. The visiting Trojans edged the host Panthers 3-2 on March 14, a match that was called off in the 47th minute due to lightning in the area of Camp Zama.Players to watch: Holdovers Jason Stroup (8 goals, 5 assists) and Tony Presnell (7, 3) combine with newcomer Jimmy Niescier (6, 7) to form the core of Yokota’s offense. Zama counters with Daniel Polaski, Tyler Myers and Jon Kimball, who have five goals each.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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