The fastest runner in Tucson history? It is a never-to-be-decided debate between Tucson High’s Joe Batiste in 1939 and Amphitheater’s Michael Bates 50 years later.
Whoosh. Both were blessed with Olympic-level speed.
Much less clear, and fully undecided, is the fastest female runner in Tucson history.
Fawn Crump of Sahuaro ran 12.49 seconds to win the state 100 meters title in 1993, the fastest for a Tucsonan to that point, a whisker ahead of Catalina’s Felicia Lane and Santa Rita’s Kelly Litviak. Later, two distinguished Rincon sprinters, Sonja Jackson and Tamara Pridgett, challenged for Fastest Tucsonan Ever (female division).
Finally, in 2011, when she was in the ninth grade, Michaela Crunkleton-Wilson ran 100 meters in 11.71 seconds to win the USATF Junior Olympics. She went on to win five state championships at Salpointe Catholic and was recruited by everyone with a stopwatch.
“We planned to be in the 2016 Olympics together,” said UA track coach Fred Harvey, who coached Crunkleton-Wilson’s club team.
A year or two later, Crunkleton-Wilson chose Stanford, where she has lowered her time to 11.66, but has evolved into a 400-meter specialist and is no longer a top Olympic prospect.
Salpointe’s Jaide Stepter, who in 2016 became an All-American in the hurdles at USC, and Tucson High’s Tanisha Kendrick, Class of 2007 — who still owns the state record at 400 meters (54.30) — were exceptional sprinters, but not in the attention-grabbing 100.
Now comes Tucson High senior Neysia Howard, who won state championships in the 100 and 200 and anchored the Badgers’ winning 4x100 relay last week. She also finished second in the long jump, which makes her weekend in Phoenix a performance for the ages in the context of Tucson prep track and field.
Howard has the appropriate, head-turning number, 11.90, a career best in the 100 meters, and long ago signed scholarship papers to run for Harvey at Arizona.
There are some impressive athletic genes involved; Howard’s father, Tambotka Howard, was second in the state 200 meter finals in 1992 as a Cholla High School junior, and was part of the UA men’s track teams of 1993-95.
Neysia Howard also runs for Harvey’s Tucson Elite Track Club, distinguished herself six years ago, running 12.73 seconds over 100 meters at the national Junior Olympics. Now the question is: how much faster can Howard go?
Over the next four years at the UA, can she become Tucson’s fastest-ever female sprinter?
“It’s funny, last week at the state championships, everybody seemed to expect me to win the 100 and 200 — everybody but me,” Neysia said with a chuckle. “I’m not one who brags. I knew how difficult it would be.”
If you watch videos of the two races, Neysia’s farewell to high school sprinting was more a tribute to her will than pure speed and talent. In the 100 final, she did not get a good start and trailed top-seeded Mawata “Lucky” Demaih for the first 70 yards. But in the final 30 yards, Howard summoned something extra to win, 12.07 to 12.19.
“When you’re racing against someone named Lucky, it can mess with you,” Howard said. “I didn’t want to deal with luck. I just planned to do my best.”
The 200 final was even more compelling. Howard led from start to finish, but over the final 50 meters had to employ every bit of strength to win by just .04, as Hamilton’s Morgan Parzych staged an impressive comeback.
“It was scary,” Howard said. “I was wheezing standing behind the starting blocks, finding it difficult to breathe. I had been taking (cold medication) for a few days. Winning those races in that condition was really tough.”
That toughness is what appeals to Harvey.
“I’m short and skinny,” Neysia says. “I already spend a lot of time in the weight room. When I get to the UA, I’ll spend more time there.”
“She’ll get faster,” her father says. “She is very committed to improving.”
Arizona hasn’t had a women’s Pac-12 championship sprinter in a generation. Brianna Glenn swept 2001 NCAA titles in the 100 and 200 (and also won the long jump), and is viewed as the top female sprinter in school history.
No one’s saying Neysia Howard is the next Brianna Glenn, but Harvey expects her to be a significant contributor.
“From an athletic standpoint, there’s still a lot of development that has to take place for her to compete at the Pac-12 level” says Harvey. “But Neysia is a young lady with such strong will and spirit. She is a big-time leader. She is someone who can help our team bond.”
Harvey believes, over time, Howard can lower her career-best 11.90 to something close to 11.50 and take it from there. But he also believes her best event might turn out to be the 200 meters, and that she can be a factor in the long jump, too, reaching 20 feet.
“She’s tenacious,” says Harvey. “The thing I really like about her is that she doesn’t know who she can’t beat.”