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Moorpark Runner Goes the Distance : Righter Tries, Likes Longer Events, Gains Athletic Scholarship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Noelle Righter is a sentimentalist. Greeting cards, post cards, letters, concert ticket stubs--she’ll save just about anything to preserve a memory.

A couple of scrapbooks, filled with photographs, newspaper clippings and mementos from her high school days in Kansas as an athlete, homecoming queen and cheerleader, are the Moorpark College sophomore’s most-prized possessions.

“Every year, I save everything until I have a big stack and then I spend a couple of days putting them in the book,” Righter, 20, said.

She started her third scrapbook after enrolling at Moorpark last fall, but Righter, the runner-up at 200 meters as a freshman at Chaparral High in Harper, Kan., in 1986 and at 400 meters as a junior in the Class 4-A (medium schools) Division--did not anticipate having many additions this year.

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“I wanted to concentrate on school and get my classes out of the way,” said Righter, who lives in Simi Valley. “I was going to run one more year of track and then that would be it.”

Those plans have since been revised. And so has her specialty.

Midway through the past track season, Righter, who had favored the sprint events, succumbed to repeated urging from Moorpark College track and field Coach Manny Trevino and gave the 800 and 1,500 a try.

Two weeks after running her first 1,500 and five weeks after her first 800, Righter won both events in the Western State Conference championships. And she finished second in the 1,500 and third in the 800 at the state junior college meet in May.

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“It’s pretty scary to try something new, especially the distance of the 1,500, but I really liked the 800 and 1,500 from the beginning,” Righter said. Her best times are 2 minutes 15.79 seconds for the 800 and 4:38.60 for the 1,500.

“At first, I got a panic feeling and all but refused to do it, but they aren’t really any more painful than running the quarter (mile).”

Although her emergence as one of the state’s top junior college middle-distance runners was sudden and came toward the end of the season, the 5-foot-6, 120-pound Righter attracted scholarship offers from several NCAA Division I schools, including Fresno State, with whom she recently signed a letter of intent, UC Irvine, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Northridge.

Fresno State track and field Coach Red Estes had not even heard of Righter until the Southern California junior college regional finals, the qualifying meet for the state championships.

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Although Righter placed fourth in the 1,500 and fifth in the 800, Estes was immediately impressed.

“She’s unproven at the Division I level and there is certainly a reasonable risk with that kind of athlete, but her initial success is quite remarkable considering her whole background,” Estes said.

“She has shown that she has strength and speed. It doesn’t take a Rhodes scholar to see she has a lot of potential, but it’s so early in her career that it’s still anybody’s guess what she can do.”

Trevino, who also coaches Moorpark’s cross-country team, also saw possibilities when he saw Righter in a conditioning class last fall and invited her to practice with the cross-country runners.

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“She was always talking during workouts and wouldn’t get tired,” Trevino said. “Most sprinters would have been dying. I kept thinking she could be a great middle-distance runner, but she kept on insisting she was a sprinter.”

Righter did not leap at the prospect of running cross-country.

“I didn’t want to do any other sports other than track,” Righter said. “I just wanted to train for the quarter. I dreaded running by myself and they talked me into going on a run with them. Then, pretty soon they talked me into running (in a meet) at the last minute.”

Righter, who was at the meet as a spectator, was given a singlet that a male teammate had just finished competing in.

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“It was just disgusting,” she said. “It was all sweaty and about two sizes too big. I had to wash it in a water fountain.”

Despite this unpleasant initiation, Righter stuck with cross-country and finished ninth in the WSC finals, helping Moorpark to a conference title and a fourth-place finish in the state.

Still, the sprints beckoned.

“The minute cross-country got out, I was concentrating on sprint drills,” said Righter, who has bests of 26.1 and 57.9 for 200 and 400 meters. “In the middle of the season, I was getting frustrated because my times weren’t coming down. (Trevino) apparently had it in his mind that the 800 and 1,500 were the best races for me, so I finally gave in.”

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Righter almost gave up track after graduating from Chaparral, a school about 50 miles southwest of Wichita with an enrollment of 400. She accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Butler County Community College in El Dorado, Kan.

“Basketball was always my first love coming out of high school,” said Righter, an all-state honorable mention selection as a senior. “It was more fun because I liked playing with a team and there was less pressure than competing in track.”

Chaparral won Class 4-A titles her sophomore and junior seasons and finished second her senior year. The Roadrunners were 72-4 in Righter’s three seasons, including a winning streak of 52 games.

Righter had no intention of competing in track at Butler--whose alumni includes 400-meter world record-holder Butch Reynolds--until she was recruited to fill in for an injured member of the 1,600-meter relay team a week before the Jayhawk Conference championships. Butler won the race and advanced to the national junior college championships in Odessa, Tex., where the squad placed eighth.

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“I just started training the last four weeks of the season,” Righter said. “I wasn’t doing any running and was just in the shape I was coming out of basketball. I didn’t decide to continue with track until after I ran in the national meet.”

But even before deciding to try track at Butler, she had her heart set on leaving Kansas and following her family. “I wanted to come to California,” said Righter, whose parents had moved to Fresno after she graduated from high school.

Last August, Righter moved in with relatives in Simi Valley, who suggested that she enroll at Moorpark College.

“I didn’t know who she was,” Trevino said. “We didn’t recruit her or anything. She just showed up. It was like finding a diamond in the rough.”

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Trevino and Moorpark sprints coach Doni Green were caught off guard by Righter’s immediate success and had to alter her training program to accommodate her swift progress in the 800 and the 1,500. Righter split her workouts between Trevino and Green until she shifted her focus exclusively to the middle distances.

“I was going back and forth between Doni and Manny and getting two kinds of advice, but they finally correlated and everything eventually fell into place.” Righter said. “For a while, I didn’t know what my role on the team was.”

Righter does not foresee that problem next season. “I consider myself an 800 and 1,500 runner now,” she said. “I want to have a strong cross-country season and stress track, but I’m going to have patience because it’s going to take two to three years of building.”

By then, that third scrapbook should be completed and it will be time to start yet another.

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