First impressions of Newbury Park High's Melissa Sutton can be misleading.
Away from athletics, she gives the impression of being friendly but shy, the kind of teen-ager who never speaks out of turn, who always raises her hand in class and who never speaks unkindly about anyone else.
When she races, however, the shy smile disappears into a competitive grimace.
Simi Valley Coach Tom King, who was an assistant at Newbury Park until this season, may have summarized Sutton best when he said, "If you sit down and talk to her, you see this mild-mannered kid. But you watch her out on the course and she's an animal."
Her streak bears witness to that.
She has won 12 consecutive cross-country races this season and set course records in her first 10. She broke the 10 course records by an average of 48 seconds.
During the streak, her average margin of victory has been 77 seconds, or roughly a quarter of a mile. Her smallest margin of victory has been 27 seconds.
When she reaches the starting line for the Southern Section championships on Saturday morning at Mt. San Antonio College, Sutton will be attempting to win an unprecedented third straight 4-A title and break the girls three-mile course record of 17:16 set by Palos Verde's Kirsten O'Hara in 1983.
"She's really been phenomenal," said Thousand Oaks cross-country Coach Jack Farrell, whose daughter, Christy, runs at Thousand Oaks. "No one's been able to stay with her.
"Melissa has run so well that she makes someone like Christy, who's probably one of the top 30 or 40 high school runners in the country, look like a very average runner."
Although the 10 course records have surprised even Sutton, her mastery of cross-country is nothing new.
The 5-6 1/2, 119-pound senior is the two-time defending Southern Section 4-A cross-country champion.
In 1984, she placed seventh at the Kinney West Regionals and qualified for the national championships. Last year she improved to second at the West Regionals and was the top West Coast finisher with her sixth-place effort at the national championships in San Diego.
She attributes her success this season to many factors.
"I ran 50 miles a week last summer and it's really paid off," she said. "I feel very strong during the races this year.
"Running up the hills seems easier to me."
Good health has also helped. Unlike the 1985 cross-country season, when she was slowed by sickness, Sutton has had only one minor cold and no injuries this year.
"That's so important in having a good season," she explained. "When you're healthy you can train consistently, which leads to confidence and consistency in races."
Farrell, her Marmonte League rival, finished second in the 1984 and third in the 1985 4-A championships. She echoed Sutton's sentiments.
"I think one of the keys to this season has been her health. She hasn't been sick or injured."
Hard training and good health alone, however, don't guarantee success in distance running. Mental toughness and confidence are as essential to great performances as physical conditioning.
"I'm more confident than I've been in the past," Sutton said. "I've just matured. I'm a year older and I really want to make my senior season the best one yet."
Newbury Park cross-country Coach Mike Stewart agreed. "She's definitely more confident," he said. "I think some of it has to do with her being a year older and some of it stems from the fact that she's racing so well."
Jack Farrell said that Sutton's improved confidence is evident in her racing tactics. "Last year, she never led races. She would sit back in the early stages of the race and then surge in the second half. I think she was capable of running from the front then but she just didn't have the confidence in herself.
"Now that she's got that confidence, she's not afraid to push the pace from the start."
Said Buena High cross-country Coach Steve Blum: "She's a front-runner now. And that's a direct result of her confidence."
Sutton's mother, Ellie, said her daughter's victory at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational track meet in April served as a catalyst. "Before then, she had always been a little tentative about her ability, but that race proved to her that she could beat the top runners."
Stewart feels that Sutton's determination and dedication are as important as her confidence. "She's a very determined young lady," he said. "She knows what she wants and she's not afraid to work for it.
"My biggest concern with Melissa is keeping her healthy. I don't have to worry about motivating her, she does that herself."
Sutton's affection for cross-country is another reason for her success.
Many distance runners compete in cross-country mainly to get in shape for track. Sutton doesn't.
She enjoys cross-country more than track even though she won the Southern Section 4-A championships and placed fifth in the 1986 state meet at 3,200 meters. She has run 10:29.96 for that distance as well as a 4:58.9 mile in a distance-medley relay.