Long before Nicole Powell was introduced as the new leader of Grand Canyon University women’s basketball program this week, Sara Gorton Slattery was on the same Phoenix campus training distance runners to break through mental barriers.
They were doing the similar things on Mountain Pointe High School’s campus in the late 1990s.
“It is very rare to have such high-level athletes in the same school,” said David Klecka, who was the Pride’s track coach at the same time. “They pushed each other and had success and drive in common. They could vent to each other in regards to recruiting and pressures.
“They both were the best in their sports. Period.”
Now, they are back together again. The two stars from the same high school graduating class are now running separate programs at the same university.
“It’s funny how people can come in and out of your life,” Slattery said. “When the (women’s basketball) position opened up, I told some people what a great fit Nicole would be. Even my mom made the connection. We had stayed in touch through social media and when (Powell) emailed me I was so excited.”
The same could be said for the administration at GCU. Everything about Powell, her personal success in the game, her coaching pedigree and her winning ways matched the blueprint that has been in place Grand Canyon on its road to Division I athletics.
“She is a high-energy individual who has a strong passion for working with people and is highly respected in the basketball world, having played and coached at the highest levels of the sport,” Lopes athletic director Mike Vaught said. “She will be a great influence on our student-athletes and the university as a whole."
Powell has been making a name for herself in the coaching ranks at Gonzaga University and Oregon State since retiring from a highly successful playing career, collegiately at Stanford University and an 11-year WNBA career. She had one of the most storied high school athletic careers in Arizona history.
Powell was a badminton state singles champion, a state doubles champion in tennis and made the varsity team’s top six in the one year she ran cross country. Later in her career, she balanced her tennis responsibilities with track on the Pride’s 4x400 and 4x800 relay teams along with being a top-eight finisher at state in the shot put and discus.
“She could literally do anything and win,” Klecka said. “I have never seen an athlete like her.”
Slattery’s success was more singular but just as impressive before she moved on to Colorado, where she was a two-time national champion in the 5,000 meters (indoor) and 10,000 meters (outdoors).
For the Pride, she was a cross-country state champ and two-time runner-up and won the 3,000 meters at the 1999 Pan American Junior Athletics Championships.
In track, Slattery won titles in the 3,200 and 1,600-meter events during twice to give her 10 state titles including team championships. She set state records in the 1,500 (4:31.50), the 1,600 (4:49.11) and the 3,200 (10:15.94).
She tried to revitalize her running career in 2015 as she attempted to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, but came up short.
Around the same time, she was pegged as GCU’s cross-country coach.
With Grand Canyon’s ascent to Division I athletics in place, Slattery knows the process will be slow but satisfying.
“I wasn’t seeking it out with two young kids, and having to juggle everything but it has worked out well,” Slattery said. “We are growing and developing as much as we can. It will be two or three years until we have a team that can contend, but we have athletes willing to work.”
Work is something that Powell and Slattery know a little about. It’s easy to look at the totality of the results and forget what it took to get there. The athletes under their guidance will get a first-hand look at what these two Mountain Pointe Hall of Famers are all about.
"I cannot wait to get on the road and share what we've got going on here with recruits and their families,” Powell said. “This is a special place and I know we are going to attract talented, high character student-athletes who want to win championships, but also have a strong desire to serve others.
"The culture of GCU is unique.”
Ask anyone who was around Mountain Pointe in the early days and they will say the same about their school.
Many athletes – don’t forget men’s volleyball Olympian Reid Priddy, a 1996 graduate – who excelled and administrators, like then-principal and current AIA executive director Harold Slemmer, who helped create an atmosphere that developed stars of every kind.
“Looking back after I left Mountain Pointe I felt I was a step above students from other schools; more prepared to be successful,” Slattery said. “The school back then, before open enrollment, had so many great athletes and administrators to show us the high standard they kept and how to go about achieving our goals.
“It has a lot to do with the success Nicole and I and others have had, and now we are together again with the same ideals.”