The City of Rio Rancho’s Parks and Recreation department has engaged Rio Rancho Public Schools in making a national youth track and field program available for city youngsters.

Enthused with the success of the three-year-old Rio Rancho Youth Basketball League, P&R Director Jay Hart has been working to get the high school track and field coaches’ cooperation before embarking on a viable program for 2010.

“On a personal level, I love track and field because it gives everybody a chance to compete,” Hart said. “Bottom line: The kids are having fun. Maybe they’re being introduced to a new activity, different than basketball and football.”

Youngsters ages 9-14 could strive to be the next Caleb Rubalcaba, seen here, in green, running in the 1,600-meter run at last Monday's Sepulveda Classic in Albuquerque.

Rio Rancho youth this summer will become eligible for The Hershey’s Track & Field Games, the largest youth sports program in North America. It’s for kids ages 9-14 as of Dec. 31 this year, and contains nine events: four sprints (50-, 100-, 200- and 400-meter dashes), two distance races (800- and 1,600-meter runs), a relay (4x100) and two field events (long jump and softball throw).

There are three age brackets for boys and three for girls: 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14; athletes may participate in a maximum of three events.

“Jay and I have been talking and working toward this Hershey track meet since he got here,” Rio Rancho Public Schools athletic director Bruce Carver said. “I think it’s a great thing and I got our coaches involved.”

Longtime track and field coaches Sal Gonzales at Rio Rancho High Schoopl and Larry Chavez at Cleveland High School were quick to jump on board.

“The Rio Rancho High School coaching staff and athletes will be offering a track clinic for all of the athletes who wish to participate in the Hershey Track and Field Meet,” Gonzales said. “We will be teaching the fundamentals of the events and the importance of a healthy lifestyle. This event will not only introduce many athletes to track and field but it will also give our athletes an opportunity to give back to the community.”

“It is a great opportunity for the youth of the community to be introduced to the sport,” Chavez added. “I think kids nowadays are specializing way too early and do not have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of this sport and other sports. I would hope that this would have some sort of impact on both track programs. “But, in all honesty, that is not the reason we are getting involved — we just want to have a long-lasting impact on the health of our youth,” Chavez said.

A $15 registration fee per athlete sets him/her up to participate in local clinics and tune-up meets, of which several are scheduled.

The first instructional skills clinic will be held May 2 at Cleveland High from 1 until 4 p.m.

A tune-up meet will be held May 8, also at CHS, al 10 a.m., although Gonzales and Chavez will be absent, with the Class 5A state track and field meet concluding that day in Albuquerque.

Another skills clinic will take place May 16 from 1 to 3 p.m. at RRHS and a tune-up meet is slated for May 22, also at RRHS, at 10 a.m.

On June 5, a Hershey’s qualifying meet will be held at 10 a.m., at RRHS; registration begins that day at 9 a.m.

Next up for those winners is the Region 4 meet, where they’ll compete against youngsters from Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas and other district winners in New Mexico.

In recent years, national Hershey’s competitors representing New Mexico have come from programs in Roswell, Ruidoso, Artesia and Los Alamos.

Maybe kids from Rio Rancho can begin etching their names in the record books as soon as this summer.

“Each state gets an allocation of so many athletes who can participate,” Hart said. “Hershey’s covers the expenses of the athletes who travel to Hershey, Pa. … I think that’s pretty special.

“We want every kid to know about this,” Hart concluded.

The 33rd annual Hershey’s Track & Field Games will be held Aug. 5-7 in — where else? — Hershey, Pa. (See hersheytrackandfield.com for more.)