Eight runners meet early Saturday morning in an empty classroom at Camarillo High. For an hour, they look for a silver lining in the Scorpions' loss to Dana Hills High in the Southern Section cross-country prelims the day before at Mt. San Antonio College.
For Camarillo, the No. 1-ranked team in the state, losses are rare. Coach Mike Smith intends for this one to be a learning experience.
"I told the kids that I could see it coming," Smith said. "We had become complacent about winning. I also said that I was glad it happened in the prelims so we would have time to regroup for the finals.
"I definitely feel like our kids have something to prove now. I think we are going to be a much better team because of what happened."
To qualify for state, Camarillo has to win its division or have 1 of the 5 fastest times among Division I schools--those with an enrollment of 1,600 or more--at the Southern Section championships Saturday on the same Mt. SAC course.
Before losing to Dana Hills, the Scorpions had done little wrong this season. Camarillo won its second consecutive Marmonte League and Ventura County titles and had not lost to a California school.
Camarillo, however, did no less than expected this season. Ever since the Scorpions placed third at the Southern Section Finals in 1986, pressure and expectations have gone hand in hand with winning. And the team hasn't always been able to handle it.
"We were expected to be one of the best teams around last year, but we were still immature and not ready emotionally," Smith said. "I think all of the expectations did not work real well for us."
After winning its league and the Ventura County titles, Camarillo placed third in the 4-A final and fourth in the state meet last year. Yet despite its finish, Smith says his runners were not satisfied.
"We walked away from last season with the feeling that we had not really run to our potential," Smith said. "We felt a lot of stress and pressure and we allowed that anxiety to affect our performance."
Junior Shawn Goetzinger added that the runners did not get along well last year compared with this year's group.
"We're more of a team this year and things have really come together for us," Goetzinger said.
In addition to running as a team, the Scorpions are also friends. They go bowling together or stage toilet-paper raids on Smith's house. That closeness is also reflected in the runners' attitude during a meet.
"You're out there running for everyone on the team, not just yourself," Goetzinger said. "Last year, we were more into just doing our own thing."
Senior John Schnell said that camaraderie has contributed to Camarillo's success this season.
"Our team had faster times last year, but we're closer now," Schnell said. "I'm not thinking about myself when I run. I think about Shawn or Abe (Valdez) or Chad (Malesich) and how hard they're working."
Smith also shares in the togetherness. He joins his runners on their daily workouts and hosts parties at his house.
"I have never been around a group of kids who have as much fun as these guys," Smith said. "I think that has been a big part of their success. They really like each other and run for each other."
While Smith stresses a team concept, Camarillo would not have had as much success without the strong individual running of Valdez, Malesich and Goetzinger, all juniors.
Valdez placed third overall in the Scorpions' 4-A heat last week, clocking 15 minutes, 33 seconds over the 3-mile course. Malesich (16:00) and Goetzinger (16:01) placed ninth and 10th, respectively.
Goetzinger was Camarillo's top runner at the league finals Nov. 4. He placed second in 15:43 over a 3-mile course at Moorpark College, and was followed by Valdez (15:57) and Joel Gonzalez (16:19) as the Scorpions placed 3 runners in the top 4.
"Shawn, Chad and Abe are our top three runners and they are tremendous individual talents," Smith said. "But we don't have any one guy who is going to go out and win a race for us every time."
Goetzinger concedes that Camarillo will need to improve as a team if it hopes to continue its season past Saturday.
"We just ran flat," Goetzinger said. "They (Dana Hills) just outclassed us and wanted it more than we did.
"I think we were all a little bit overconfident, but it was the best thing that could have happened because it shows us that we have to give it all we have.
"We have been running flat races lately and I'm not sure exactly why. Our guys got to thinking that they could not push themselves and still win. I hope now they've learned a valuable lesson."
If being upset by Dana Hills doesn't motivate the Scorpions, Smith probably will. Smith, who had never run cross-country before taking over the Camarillo program in 1982, has steadily improved as a coach.
In his first season at Camarillo, Smith trained one of the top high school runners in the nation, Eric Reynolds, who won the Kinney national cross-country championships and ran 8:52.23 for 3,200 meters on the track. But the Scorpions did not win a meet that year.
It wasn't until 1986, when the Scorpions placed third in the Southern Section meet with 3 freshmen, a sophomore and 3 juniors that the program came of age.
Smith is counting on the Scorpions' maturity to help them to their first 4-A title.
"We have arrived this year," Smith said. "I think we have put the top ranking in perspective and have become a much better team because we have allowed ourselves to go out and have fun without letting the pressure get to us."
In addition to Dana Hills, Camarillo will be challenged by Corona Del Mar of Newport Beach.