Ryan Ferguson, who graduated from Oxnard High last year, had the academic qualifications to attend a four-year school. Instead, he enrolled at Ventura College because he wanted to ease his way into college distance running.
Competing for a junior college team, he reasoned, would allow him to develop as an athlete and improve his chances of earning a scholarship.
The last thing he wanted to do was compete against runners with the talent to excel at the NCAA Division I level. Yet that's what happened in the Moorpark cross-country invitational when Ventura ran against Riverside and its Foreign Fab Five--Alamayehu Robba of Ethiopia, Abdelkader Chelby of Tunisia, and Muchapiwa Mazano, Gray Mavhera and Passmore Furusa of Zimbabwe.
"It wouldn't bother me running against athletes of their caliber if I was at the Division I level, but I'm not," Ferguson said. "I view the (junior colleges) as a way of working my way up to the next level and these guys are already there."
Ferguson is not alone.
With the increasing numbers of foreign nationals competing for California junior colleges, particularly in track and field, cross-country and men's tennis, American athletes are regularly faced with similar challenges. Some find motivation in trying to beat their foreign counterparts, who generally are highly polished in their sports, and others simply shrug their shoulders, resigned to accept a situation for which there is no easy solution.
Almost everyone agrees that the foreigners who come to California junior colleges are simply more talented than area junior college athletes. They point to the recent domination by Riverside's distance runners as a case in point.
The Tigers won every men's race from 800 to 10,000 meters in last year's state track championships and were favored to repeat in this year's meet--which concluded Saturday night--at Shasta College in Redding.
In cross-country, the Tigers won the 1991 state title by placing four runners--all from Zimbabwe--among the first seven finishers.
Last year, they placed five runners among the top six finishers before all five were disqualified for "impeding the progress of other runners in the race" after they ran three or four abreast over much of the four-mile course.
"As good as Riverside was (in cross-country) last season, you know most of those guys could run much faster if they wanted to," Ferguson said. "There's no way those guys would finish as close together as they do if they were running all-out. If they ran all-out they would be much more spread out."
Israel Pose of El Camino, who finished ninth in last year's state cross-country championships before the Riverside Five were disqualified, said he felt helpless during the race.
"These guys aren't even running close to what they're capable of," Pose said. "Everybody else is out there busting their butts and these guys are just cruising. They're really just toying with you and there's not much you can do about it."
Faced with almost-certain defeat, some runners succumb to discouragement, said Pose, a 1991 graduate of Torrance High. Others, however, use the superior competition for motivation.
"(Riverside's runners) bring out the best in you," Pose said. "I know that maybe not all of them are world-class runners, but they're better than the rest of us. They are very good, but they are not unbeatable."
Another runner who relishes that competition is Robert Nelson of Glendale, who finished second in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in last week's Southern California championships.
"Racing (foreigners) is kind of a challenge to me," Nelson said. "It doesn't really matter to me where they're from or how good they are. I just want to run as fast as I can, and having them in a race can help me do that."
However, the realization that he is not competitive against Riverside's African contingent affected Ferguson's preparation for the 10,000 meters in the Southern California championships.
"When I was going into that race, (the Riverside trio of Mazano, Chelby and Mavhera) weren't even on my mind," he said. "I knew I couldn't beat them."
Mazano and Chelby finished first and second, but a Riverside sweep of the first three places was thwarted when Pose and Felipe Martinez of San Bernardino Valley finished third and fourth ahead of Mavhera.
Ferguson finished ninth, three places away from the sixth--and final--qualifying spot for the state championships.
"I don't like to make excuses," Ferguson said last week. "But I'd be running in the state meet if (the Riverside runners) weren't there."
The flip side to Ferguson's disappointment is the euphoria experienced by Pose on those rare occasions when he finishes ahead of one of Riverside's athletes.
"It's a great feeling just to know that you were able to be competitive with them for most of the race," he said. "But when you actually beat them, it's really special."