The budding friendship between Carl Chandler and Lechi Nkwocha was first tested on the pitch.
Pals since sixth graders at Woodward Elementary, they were pitted against each other for the first time on opposing teams in the Manteca Area Soccer League.
It was Chandler’s birthday.
Nkwocha’s present? A hard slide tackle that knocked Chandler off his feet.
“It just escalated since,” Chandler said.
Now, they are multi-sport teammates at Manteca High, but all that has done was further fan the competitive rivalry between the two sophomores. The school’s boys track team has reaped the benefits of the friendly feud, which helped the Buffaloes’ varsity capture back-to-back Valley Oak League champions. Their contributions came from the three jumping events, though next year they will be asked to put some sprinting spikes to use.
Chandler and Nkwocha’s 2013 season continues today in the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters Meet at Elk Grove High, where athletes will vie for berths to the CIF State Championships. They are two of just five underclassmen (all sophomores) in the field of 24 boys triple jumpers at Masters.
“They came up huge,” head coach Sean Hogan said. “They scored a lot of points for us this year in league while we had a few of our sprinters out (with injuries). They are the foundation for our boys program for the next couple of years.
“The bad thing is I don’t think they perform at the level they’re at right now without each other. They competitively feed off each other.”
When it comes to the triple jump, Chandler has the edge — though not by much. Both shattered personal records in last week’s SJS Division IV/V Meet at Sierra High. Nkwocha did it on his first attempt, which measured at 42 feet, 6 inches. Chandler immediately followed with a 43-6, drawing oohs and ahs from spectators watching near the pit.
Nkwocha outdid himself on his second try but came up just short of Chandler’s best mark.
Forty three feet, 5.75 inches.
Chandler placed second and Nkwocha settled for third. Both trailed Kimball senior Derek Van de Streek, a legitimate contender for a top-three finish and state berth today. The trio went 1-2-3 in that same order at the VOL Championships, where Chandler’s 42-03.75 was a mere three quarters of an inch better than Nkwocha’s.
“Whenever he hits anything high I just think, ‘I gotta beat it,’ and it’s always a quarter of an inch away,” Nkwocha said, putting thumb to forefinger for visual effect.
“I just look at him from the corner of my eye. It’s frustrating, but he’s so much better than me technically.”
It pains Nkwocha to admit that.
Chandler likes to remind him.
“In all other sports he is better than me. In basketball he gets awards, in football he gets awards, so I’ll admit that I was pretty excited when I started doing better than him this season in track,” Chandler said. “I do want him to keep up and do as well as me, but then again I still want to do better than him.”
Not just in track.
Manteca High teacher Neil MacDannald recently administered a weightlifting test taken by Chandler and Nkwocha. MacDannald, who is also a varsity football coach, knows all about their never-ending game of “Can you top this?”
“I was doing like 225 (pounds) for cleans, and when Carl came up I heard MacD say, ‘Oh, Lechi did this, are you going to hit this or what? Let’s see who’s better.’
“After he hit it the same as me, I was like, ‘It’s time to step up, put it at 255.’”
“At this point everybody was getting all riled up,” Chandler interjected.
Nkwocha refused to back down from the challenge.
“Coach said it’s OK for us to be equal,” he said before shaking his head. “No, we can’t be equal.”
Never mind that both showed up to a meeting with the Bulletin wearing red T-shirts and cargo shorts. Fashion tastes aside; they do agree that reaching the state meet won’t be easy this year. The at-large standard is set at 46-10, so they’d have to cover a gap that is more than 3 feet past their lifetime bests. Their best bet is to finish no worse than third, but standing in the way are the likes of Monterey Trail senior Romin Geiger, the Rosemont tandem of Kameron Williams and Gathungy Ndirangu and Van de Streek.
“Our plan it to just PR,” Nkwocha said. “A 44-6 is what we’re looking for next, and that’s doable. We could sneak into state, you never know. People can have off days, and people like us can have good days. State may not be so far away.”
Chandler won’t be so far away, that much is certain. For the third straight week, Nkwocha and Chandler will make their attempts back-to-back.
And Hogan will have to hear all about it on the way home.
“Those two are attached at the hip,” Hogan said, “but it’s so much fun to watch them progress together.”