Margarito Casillas often turns to art for inspiration.
With a sketch pad before him and a pencil in hand, Casillas feels as free as the eagles, hawks and falcons that almost spring to life from his drawings.
"Those are like my symbols," said Casillas, a sophomore at Hoover High. "They're powerful and I like the way they fly."
When Casillas dons his singlet and takes to the track for Hoover, he also draws on inspiration from two former Tornadoes--Eliazar Herrera and Crayton Harris--who fairly flew to success at the high school level and parlayed their achievements into college scholarships at UCLA and Wisconsin, respectively.
Their example, and that set by Herrera's older brother, Pablo, a former Hoover runner who died last year in an automobile accident, have helped Casillas develop into the most recent standout in a growing line of talented Hoover runners under Coach Greg Switzer.
"When I was a freshman, I saw how Eliazar was winning all those medals and trophies and I wanted to be just like that," Casillas said. "Pablo helped coach me. He trained me hard and told me not to quit and to do my best.
"Since the tragedy happened, whatever I do goes to thank him for what he did for me."
Casillas, 16, is on pace to become one of the best runners in Hoover history. In the fall, he led Hoover to its fourth consecutive Pacific League cross-country title. This track season, he has clocked 4 minutes 27.5 seconds in the mile and 9:19.8 in the two-mile.
"One of the biggest reasons for Margarito's success is that he had Eliazar and Crayton as work models," Switzer said. "He knew what real work and commitment was from watching those guys last year. He saw what they earned and he was quick to dedicate himself.
"He is a senior in terms of his awareness and concentration on the sport. The only thing sophomore about him is his body."
Casillas, 5-foot-7, 130 pounds, never considered himself much of a runner when he was in elementary school or junior high.
"In elementary school, they used t have us run two laps on a small oval," he recalled. "I said, 'Oh my God, I can't do this, it's too long.'
"We also had these relay races. I was always in the sprints and finished last. I said, 'Track is not for me.' "
In junior high, Casillas was recruited to take a stab at the mile. Reluctantly, he agreed to try.
"I was one of the last ones to finish," he said. "I was kind of mad that I didn't win a ribbon."
Ribbons and medals, however, played a key role in Casillas' decision to give running one more try.
His older brother, Angel, joined the cross-country team at Hoover and returned home from a meet one day with a medal.
"My family was all excited and proud," Margarito recalled. "I said to myself, 'I want to get one of those.' "
Casillas did not waste time setting moderate, reachable goals. In the summer before his freshman cross-country season, he approached Switzer with a question.
"He came up to me and said, 'How many high school kids have run a mile under four minutes?' " Switzer said. "It's practically impossible, but it told me, 'This kid wants it, he's committed.' "
Casillas ran as Hoover's seventh man during his freshman cross-country season. After running a regular-season best of 17:38 over a three-mile course, he proved his mettle--and shocked Switzer--by dropping to 17:06 at the Southern Section finals.
Since then, he has run past most opponents and established a foundation for future success.
"He's the most even-tempered, well-dispositioned athlete I think I have ever encountered for someone who wants to succeed as badly as he does," Switzer said. "My biggest problem is holding him back so he doesn't too much."
Casillas is preparing for Friday's Pacific League finals at Arcadia High. His goals, not surprisingly, go beyond high school.
He lists UCLA, Arkansas, Oregon and Wisconsin as the colleges he would most like to attend.
'I'm trying to work hard so that my running will earn me a scholarship," said Casillas, who hopes to be an architect. "When I got here, I didn't know anything about universities and keeping my grades up. All I wanted was the trophies and the medals.
"Those guys who were here before me showed me what running can do for you. I want to follow in their footsteps."