When Muir High School of Pasadena came within a whisker of winning the state CIF girls track and field championship last year, Coach Jim Brownfield was not the least bit discouraged.
Brownfield realized the Mustangs had come close with a team that consisted mostly of underclassmen.
With two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman among their top six sprinters, the Mustangs still have the appearance of youth on their roster this season.
Only Brownfield knows better.
"We're even younger than we were last year," he says. "But we're a veteran young team. We're a young group but we act like veterans.
"Last year they were sophomores and freshmen for the most part and didn't feel like it was their place to assert themselves (over the seniors), but now they have."
It is that year of experience that Brownfield is hoping will make the difference between finishing fourth last year and winning a state title in June.
The experience appears to be paying off for the Mustangs. They have produced the fastest time in the state in the 400-meter relay (46.91 seconds) and the second-best mark in the 1,600 relay (3:52.6). Both times are comparable to the marks Muir produced at the end of last season.
"We were hoping to run that in the finals, and to be running those times now is really something," Brownfield said.
A year has also made a difference for Muir's top two sprinters, junior Inger Miller and sophomore Taminika Terry, who are among the state leaders in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.
As a sophomore, Miller almost single-handedly led the Mustangs to the state title. She finished second in the 100 meters and third at 200 and starred on Muir's 400 and 1,600 relay teams that placed third and fifth. She had a hand in all 22 of the team's points.
Despite her success, Miller had never been able to defeat defending state 100- and 200-meter champion Angela Burnham of Rio Mesa in head-to-head competition.
Nobody had defeated Burnham over the last two years before Miller accomplished the feat in the 100 at the Northridge Relays two weeks ago. Miller finished in 11.70 and Burnham at 11.73.
"To me, it (defeating Burnham) was kind of a dream," Miller said. "I was real happy. But I know she's going to be after me now so I have to be ready."
Burnham and Miller will have a rematch in the 100 in the Arcadia Invitational on Saturday at Arcadia High and figure to meet again before the state meet.
Brownfield said Miller's improvement has a lot to do with an increased emphasis on power training, which focuses on building endurance.
"In the past she'd always lose in the last 10 yards, and this time that's where she exploded--and that's because of the power training," Brownfield said.
"In comparison to last year, my attitude is a lot better," Miller added. "I was afraid to run the 400 last year but now I feel much better about it. From an endurance standpoint, it can help me in the 100 and 200."
The Mustangs have also benefited from the improvement of Terry, who has made impressive strides since competing for the varsity as a freshman. Terry, who won the 100 and 200 in the Athletics Congress youth division championships for 13- and 14-year-olds last summer, finished third in the 100 against a strong field in the Northridge Relays.
"She's so powerful-looking a lot of people think that she's a senior," Brownfield said. "But she's only a sophomore. She's only 14."
Added Terry: "Like Inger, I started off (the season) from where I was at the end of last year. We've all set goals for ourselves, and I think I'm doing well, and as the year goes on I hope to do even more."
The coach said it is Terry's potential points in the 100 and 200 that could provide the difference for his team at the state meet. "That was the impressive thing about that race (at Northridge)," Brownfield said. "We know that if she can come through and get a third, we're in good shape."
Muir can also turn to sophomore Akua Sutherland, freshman Shireen Brookhart and junior Staci Moore in the sprints. Moore won the Pacific League title in the 400 the last two seasons, and Sutherland is an excellent hurdler and triple jumper.
But what may separate this year's team from past teams at Muir is the presence of distance runners: juniors Rhonda Robinson and Kandace Watson led the Mustangs to their first Pacific League title in cross-country last season.
"We've always had quickness at Muir, but we've never had it with our distance runners," Brownfield said.
That should help the Mustangs build upon their mark of 45 straight dual-meet victories for at least the next two seasons. Muir is 3-0 this season heading into its match-up at Glendale at 2:45 today.
"We don't know about every school in the nation," Brownfield said. "But we just might be the best dual-meet team in the country. We're three and four deep in some events. Not even Hawthorne (perennial CIF Southern Section power) can challenge us there."
In six years under Brownfield and his top assistant, Mike Knowles, the Mustangs have made a habit of finishing among the top teams in the state meet and won won the title in 1985.
Brownfield, who guided Muir to back-to-back CIF Coastal Conference titles in football in 1985 and 1986, credits much of the school's success in girls track to developing a year-to-year program. The winning tradition has helped perpetuate the program, he said.
"It's like it was in football (at Muir)," he said. "The kids feel the need to do well. They feel like they can't let people down, and that's what you need to do to keep it successful."
It's that philosophy that Brownfield says can help keep Muir among the top teams in the state--including Hawthorne, Los Angeles Locke and Bakersfield--for years to come.
"We're building a dynasty here," he said. "There are four or five programs in the state that have their dynasties building, and we're one. . . . We're going to be competing with those teams for years to come."
As for this year, Brownfield admits that it may be difficult to unseat defending state champion Bakersfield, and Hawthorne and Locke are strong.
A Southern Section title is certainly more attainable for the Mustangs.
"We want to be CIF champions," Moore said. "That's our short-term goal and we've worked a lot harder for it this year. Our attitude is better and that's why we're doing better.
With an accent on underclassmen this year, the Mustangs can look forward to a bright future. Only Miller and her teammates are not inclined to look that far ahead.
"We don't want to think about that right now," Miller said. "Next year is next year. We want to win it now."