The two o'clock bell has just rung at Arroyo High School and Tim O'Rourke, faculty adviser for the school newspaper, the Knights' Banner, has some parting words for several young reporters.
"We lost our editor-in-chief and top three editors; it's a rebuilding year," O'Rourke joked with a Times reporter as he headed for the gym where he changed from dress pants and shirt to shorts and a blue T-shirt.
It may be a rebuilding year at the newspaper, but it is anything but that at one of O'Rourke's other pursuits at the school: cross-country coach of the freshman, sophomore, junior varsity and varsity teams.
O'Rourke has built a dominant program. The freshmen, sophomores and junior varsity have never lost a dual meet since he became the coach 10 years ago while a junior at Cal Poly Pomona.
Two years later O'Rourke took over the varsity, and after a losing record in his first season, they have been the Mission Valley League champions the past seven years and won CIF championships in 1982, 1983 and 1986.
The top seven runners are back from last year's championship team and have won five consecutive invitational meets this year, including the Stanford and Mt. San Antonio invitationals, where the top teams in the state competed. Arroyo sits atop the 3-A Southern Section rankings going into Saturday's CIF prelims at Mt. Sac. starting at 8 p.m.
In preparation for the prelims, O'Rourke pulled out his stopwatch in practice and had his team try to beat set times. His reporters who face a newspaper deadline every three weeks don't have it this bad; although the demanding coach doesn't yell often at his cross-country runners, he sets high goals for them and pushes them hard in practice. But the team knows how good it can become and trains accordingly.
"We sat down after last season and set our ultimate goal ," four-year lettermen Jeff Gilkey said. "We want to be the best team ever in the nation. We want to set records that will stand for a long time."
Before this season, the ultimate goal would be impossible to achieve because there was no way to prove it. But Cross-Country Journal is trying to create a national champion this year by having teams report their best meet times of the season.
Another new twist in the high school cross country, to Arroyo's delight, is the CIF's first state cross-country meet at the end of the season. Before Arroyo received its championship honor by opinion of sportswriters.
"Now it will be official," runner Derrick Powers said. "Last year, teams in Northern California that we didn't run against said they could beat us. This year there will be no doubt who is best."
An O'Rourke practice--even with the high goals, top ranking and tradition--has a loose atmosphere. Members feel O'Rourke makes the not-so-popular long distances they have to run a fun affair.
After cracking jokes during stretching, O'Rourke makes bets with prizes of a free Coke or doughnut after practice for those who can beat his set times for runs. But what gets the team through the most grueling practices is the camaraderie O'Rourke has built among the runners.
"When you see a teammate ahead of you in practice or a meet, you want to be up there with him," said Jaime Ortega, who holds Arroyo's three-mile record with a time of 14:03. "We are a family and O'Rourke is like the father.
"He makes everyone feel wanted. He teaches friendship. They're a lot of love on this team."
This is coming from a senior who didn't say a word to his teammates as a freshman or sophomore. "I didn't say a word my first two years," Ortega said. "But Coach O'Rourke and the closeness of the team helped bring everything out. Now I hardly stop talking."
"A lot of people think of cross-country runners as nerds who run in underwear," O'Rourke says. "But we'll take him (nerd) on our team, make him feel part of us and defend him until death due us part. "A few days ago a big upperclassmen football player was snapping a towel at a gangly freshmen on our team. I probably shouldn't have done it, but I grabbed the towel and snapped the guy back."
Gilkey said if he has a problem and wants advice, O'Rourke is always there. "My parents are divorced so I come to him," he said. "I just hint to him and he knows when I want to talk. He gives me his opinion but tells me to make my own decision." Tim O'Rourke, 32, is father and friend, motivator and mother, counselor and coach to his runners, who say their fondest memories of high school will not be the CIF championship they won last year and possibly again this year but the friendships they've built.
"I'll remember the friendship and good times more than the championship," Gilkey said. "Just crazy times like when the team goes to the beach at midnight to play capture the flag."