The day of Angel Martinez's 3,200-meter race in the Southern Section 3-A Division track finals last May, San Gabriel High School Coach Steve Jones discovered him playing basketball during lunch period.
Jones interrupted the game and asked for a show of hands: Who thought Martinez should be playing? Martinez's peers voted unanimously against him and refused to continue.
That evening, Martinez, then a sophomore, won the race in 9 minutes, 7.90 seconds, a personal best by nearly 10 seconds.
A week later at the Masters Meet, the qualifying meet for the state championships, the 5-foot-10 1/2, 142-pound Martinez eclipsed that mark in placing second in 8:56.48. Martinez placed fifth in the state meet.
His time at the Master's Meet ranks Martinez, now a junior, as the fastest returning 3,200-meter runner in the nation this season.
Jones, who now teaches in Riverside, said that Martinez "just loves to play basketball. This (the 3-A final) was the most important race of the season, but he wasn't thinking about getting hurt or wearing himself out for his race."
There has not always been someone around to help Martinez make the right choices.
"I had problems from the fifth to the eighth grade," said Martinez, 17. "I was always getting in trouble and was in the principal's office all the time. I did what I wanted to. I fooled around and didn't want to study. Nobody ever forced me to."
Martinez missed more than half of his sophomore track season because of academic ineligibility. Last fall, because of poor grades, Martinez was also unable to compete in cross-country and defend his 3-A Division title.
He regained his eligibility last December and placed seventh in the Kinney Western Regionals in Fresno to qualify for the national meet in San Diego. Martinez placed 16th among the top 32 runners in the country despite training on his own for the entire cross-country season.
"After not studying all through elementary school, it's pretty hard (for Martinez) to get serious about school," said Michelle Buchicchio, San Gabriel's cross-country coach. "We checked his grades and its pretty amazing he's gotten himself eligible for track this year. He has the tools to be a good student and I'm hoping that he has been taught that grades are important."
Martinez, who lives in Rosemead, is the second of four children. His father, Angel Sr., was an amateur boxer in Mexico before moving to the United States. Neither of Martinez's parents graduated from high school, nor did many of his relatives. However, Martinez said he has made a commitment to earn his diploma.
"Last time I got eligible in track, I backed off of my studies," Martinez said. "I'm not going to let it happen again. I do all of my homework now and I'm a better student. Some of my uncles who dropped out of school have got on my case and told me to stick with school or I'll regret it later."
Martinez has received letters of interest from several major universities but he said he will "probably go to a junior college for a least a year."
Two years ago, Martinez knocked nearly 50 seconds off his 3,200-meter time during the final three weeks of the track season. He placed third in the 3-A final in 9:17.16, the fastest time in the nation by a freshman.
Martinez started quickly this season. In March, he won the two-mile event in the National Scholastic Indoor Championships in Syracuse, N.Y. and then recorded his best time (4:17.7) in winning the 1,600 at the Arroyo Invitational.
Last month, Martinez placed second in the 3,200 at the Arcadia Invitational in 9:03.92 at the Arcadia Invitational of Canyon High in Canyon Country, who won in 9:00.63, and Martinez recorded the nation's two top times this season.
Martinez, however, believes there is room for improvement.
"I feel like I'm in better shape than the race at Arcadia indicated," said Martinez who has set a goal of a top five finish at the state meet in June.
"I am not a favorite and I know the competition will be there. I won't take anything lightly and take each race as it comes."