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Leader of the Pack : Gordon Weisenberger's Cross-Country Squads Crush Foes With Teamwork

October 25, 1992|SEAN WATERS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It has been a familiar scene at City Section cross-country meets for more than a decade--Belmont High Coach Gordon Weisenberger standing near the finish line, confidently marking down the names of his fastest runners.

In the season-opening meet, his fastest runners weren't necessarily the best. Birmingham's Alvaro Mejia, the defending City champion, won a race, and Bell's Juan Camacho finished second. But right behind them came a pack of green-and-black Sentinels jerseys.

It's typical of the Belmont team--there are few individual winners, but so many of them are clustered near the top that the team runs up enough points to best their competitors. It's a sign of the team's depth, and a sign of the successful program that Weisenberger, who will retire in June, has built in his 17 years as the Sentinels' cross-country coach.

"He has had as glorious of a career as any cross-country coach in the state," said Doug Speck, high school editor for Track & Field News magazine. "He has one of the few City teams that can hold its own against any team in the state. When Belmont comes to a meet, people pay attention."

When the City championships take place Nov. 14, it is a safe bet Belmont will be near the head of the pack. Belmont has won nine of the past 11 City titles, including eight in a row from 1981-88. Weisenberger's boys' dual meet record is 97-12 entering this season.

His girls' teams have been even more dominating in recent years. The Sentinels have won the past three City titles.

Weisenberger was a football coach for 21 years and his cross-country coaching career didn't begin until 1976.

"Football was the meat of my existence," said Weisenberger, who started coaching football in 1955. "I wanted to go into teaching and football was my sport. I never imagined I would win nine cross-country titles and not one football title."

Weisenberger's dedication to developing teams rather than individual runners is made evident by the fact that he's had only three boys' City champions during his cross-country coaching career. Roman Gomez, who quit B football to run, won City titles in 1983 and 1984 after finishing second as a sophomore in 1982.

Gomez holds the course record of 14:32 at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, where most City meets are held. He is also the only runner in the history of the City section to win the 1,600 and 3,200 meters during the state meet in consecutive years.

"Gomez was a crazy kid," Weisenberger said. "After football workouts, he would run a couple miles around the track in pads. I asked the B coach if this guy was going to help you in football. If not, I'm going to keep him with me."

Tefare Gebre, running 15:10, won in 1986 and Rene Arellano was champion in 1990, running 14:58 to win the City title. It was Weisenberger's most successful season, as all four Sentinel teams had 7-0 marks in dual meets and won their respective championships in the City finals.

The Belmont cross-country team follows a strict regimen, practicing six days a week and sometimes twice a day. They run nearly 10 miles a day around Echo Park and do hill work in Elysian Park. The fastest runners are seniors Wilburd Estrada, whose personal best time in a race is 14:41, and Fabrizio Flores (14:48), both originally from Guatemala City.

"We work out so much in practice that we don't feel pain during the race," Estrada said. "Even if you die on the course, you have to finish and look strong."

Weisenberger, who will turn 60 in February, would like to add two more varsity titles before he retires in June after 38 years of coaching.

"I would like to place in the top three in the state finals with either (boys' or girls') team," he said. "I don't care which one. That's my goal."

The girls' varsity team, currently ranked fifth in the state by California Track News, most likely has the best chance of accomplishing that goal during the state meet on Nov. 28 in Fresno. Patty Trejo, the City champion at 3,200 meters, and Yolanda Gomez--Roman Gomez's younger sister--are two of the top runners in the state. Juniors Alma Herrera, Imelda Flores and Raquel Ramirez have finished close to the leaders during most invitationals.

For Trejo, Weisenberger has had more of an impact on her life than just helping her to run faster.

"I wanted to run away from home because I wasn't getting along with my step-dad," Trejo said. "Coach Weisenberger saw a different attitude in me and took time to talk with me. If I ever needed help, I could run to him because his arms and house were open to me."

Even if his teams fail to grant his retirement wish, Weisenberger will be mentioned as one of City's legendary cross-country coaches along with Ed Kuntz of Garfield, Giles Godfrey of Granada Hills and Dick Kampmann of University.

"Gordon deserves all the recognition and praise that comes with winning teams," said City Section athletic director Hal Harkness, who won a City cross-country title in 1955. "He's a great example of what dedicated people can do with youngsters. He's touched the lives of thousands, and frankly, that's what we are here for."

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