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Belmont's Cross-Country Runners Creating an Enduring Tradition


Voices of encouragement rose from the hills that make up the Pierce College three-mile cross-country course as the runners in the City Section high school boys' varsity competition raced by.

The cheers of the Belmont High School contingent, one of several from the many participating schools, reached a crescendo when their own Rene Arellano appeared from behind a blind curve about 20 yards from the finish line on his way to victory.

Then more green and black Belmont jerseys dashed by. There was Sergio Lopez in fifth place, David Arias in 10th with Augusto Leal right behind, and Epifanio Roman in 13th place.

Afterward, the team broke into a resounding "Belmont, Belmont, Belmont" chant and carried Coach Gordon Weisenburger on their shoulders, signifying that the Los Angeles school had won its eighth boys' varsity team title in the last nine years thanks not only to a corps of talented athletes but also to team unity.

"It was an emotional pitch, an emotional high for them," said Weisenburger, a 23-year coaching veteran at the school who calls himself a converted football coach. "The more I'm around athletics the more I think that emotions are so important."

The Belmont teams didn't lack emotion or anything else on that day last month. They swept the four divisions contested, regaining the boys' varsity title they had lost to Taft in 1989 and successfully defending their girls' title. No other city school had ever won the boys' and girls' championships in the same season.

In the following week, competing against the top Division I teams in the state, the boys team finished in fourth place and Arellano placed fourth individually. The girls team ended up in ninth place at the state meet.

The Sentinels had entered the city finals with an undefeated Northern League dual-meet streak going back nine years in boys' varsity and back to 1984 in girls' varsity.

In the city finals, Belmont took the boys' varsity competition with 32 points, ahead of Garfield and Taft, with 107 each.

(In cross-country, the object is to score the least number of points under a system that awards one point for first place, two points for second, three points for third and so on. The scores of the top five runners, without counting runners from schools not involved in the team competition, are combined for the team score.)

The Belmont runners outdistanced San Pedro, 19 points to 108 in girls' varsity; defeated Garfield in boys' junior varsity, 20-79, and beat Birmingham in boys' freshman/sophomore, 38-81.

The results proved that Weisenburger's training methods, which involve three stages during the year--light training from July to August, intensive from September to the middle of the league season and a "maintaining" phase through the city and state finals--is right on target.

Those sessions include nine to 10 miles of hill work in Elysian Park during the intensive part of the training. Not exactly a job for the weary.

"For heart, this team is my best ever," Weisenburger said right after the city championship meet. "That was an unbelievable performance today by Arellano. He's been out two days this week with an impacted wisdom tooth. The doctor wanted to do surgery. He was still in pain this morning."

But not enough to keep Arellano from running. "I expected to finish among the top five, but I didn't think I would win," said the 18-year-old senior, who is originally from Cuernavaca, Mexico.

Arellano ran the course in 14 minutes, 58 seconds--eight seconds ahead of one of the favorites, Steve Gonzales of Carson. Gonzales had defeated Arellano by 24 seconds in the preliminaries the previous week.

"I realized I could win it around the second mile," Arellano said. "The support of the alumni and of my teammates helped me."

The camaraderie theme was echoed by 14-year-old Alma Herrera, a ninth-grader who ran a 19:20 and finished fourth in the girls' division, nine seconds ahead of teammate Patty Trejo.

"I appreciate all the encouragement of my teachers and teammates," said the petite runner born in Mexico City.

"It's a family atmosphere; that's the reason for our success," Weisenburger said, downplaying his contribution. "Tradition and family atmosphere. The kids enjoy being with one another. It's a neat situation."

One that, among other things, helps win championships.

Garfield High missed going to the state finals because of an error in the computation of the boys' varsity scores during the city finals. Garfield should have been awarded the berth instead of Taft because its sixth-place runner finished ahead of Taft's. But City officials said the error was discovered too late to correct, although state meet officials later said they would have permitted Garfield's participation anyhow.

"Six of my top seven runners are seniors and it was their dream to run in the state meet," lamented Garfield Coach Steve Wright when he was told of the mistake. "They earned the right."

At the junior-college level, Guatemalan-born Hugo Allan Garcia of Glendale College won the state cross-country title. Oscar Gonzalez of Long Beach City College was second.

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