Carla Figueroa wasn't looking for an intense, highly regimented cross-country program when she came to Chapman College three years ago.
She didn't expect the program--which didn't offer any scholarships or major funding--to provide designer sweats or state-of-the-art running shoes, as some higher-budgeted programs do.
Figueroa, a graduate of Irvine High School, simply hoped for the basics--a coach, a team, and reasonable improvement in her running each year. Something to spice her four years of studying criminal law.
What she received, though, was often an exercise in frustration. Something that has taken three years to overcome.
When Figueroa arrived as a freshman, Panther Coach Charlie Appell had just been hired on a part-time basis. Appell, who then worked 40 hours a week as an athletic equipment manager at Orange Coast College, didn't have much more than a few hours a week to spend with the team.
"Charlie would leave our workout taped on the office door," Figueroa said. "We'd run on our own most of the time, which was pretty tough as a freshman. I felt lost."
When Appell accepted a full-time position as Panther coach the next year, the team benefited from his guidance.
Still, some team members didn't show much enthusiasm.
"Some of those who came out did so for social reasons," Appell said. "Running and training seriously was not their top priority. And, for all the girls, including Carla, classes come first."
Throughout each season, the team's membership fluctuated from three to nine runners--a problem, considering that it takes five runners to form a scoring team.
"Sometimes, when we were barely getting five girls out, I'd have to go around campus asking people--even total beginners--to come out for the team," Figueroa said.
When the Panthers managed to field a five-member team against some of the larger, scholarship-filled programs such as Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, a Division II perennial power, and Cal State Northridge, the results were often devastating.
"It didn't feel too good to always be a part of a team that was getting slaughtered at every meet," Figueroa said. "The worst part was watching those girls from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. They always raced together in a pack and finished in a pack."
Figueroa twice went to several Chapman athletic administrators, hoping to secure team funds for running shoes or new uniforms or to be able to participate in summer training camps.
"We have 16 sports programs here; we provide scholarship funding for six," said Dr. Walter Bowman, Chapman athletic director. "We wish we had the ability to give more, but unless outside resources are willing to help, there's little we can do."
Said Figueroa: "I almost quit so many times. Sometimes, it seemed there was nothing going for me in athletics here. We got blown away at meets, I always had to train alone, and I couldn't convince the athletic department to get us shoes or anything. I only stayed because Charlie and some of the girls encouraged me so much."
It paid off, as Figueroa, a senior, has put aside the program's limitations, concentrating on more positive thinking and boosting her running to a higher level.
Last Friday, Figueroa set a course record of 17 minutes 37 seconds on Chapman's flat, three-mile riverbed course. Earlier this season, she set a course record at the Whittier College Invitational, a 19:14 for a hilly 5,000-meters.
Today at 10:30 a.m., Figueroa will test her abilities at the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. men's and women's cross-country championships at Cal State Northridge.
Though Appell said Chapman is shooting for fifth in the seven-team race, there will be one Panther making an attempt to challenge the favorites.
Even with runners from San Luis Obispo and Northridge in her race today, Figueroa says she won't be afraid to try to run with the top pack.
"I'm just going to go for it, right with the leaders," she said. "I used to be so scared before races, I just knew I would place badly. But now that I've stuck with it this long, I know I can run so much better."