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MIDNIGHT RUN : Tradition Is Born at Aliso Niguel


ALISO VIEJO — At 12:03 a.m. on the first day of practice for fall athletic programs, about two dozen cross-country runners made history for fledgling Aliso Niguel High School.

They practiced. Runners ran and coaches coached and parents watched and a tradition was born under a half-lit moon.

Midnight madness attracts thousands of college basketball fans around the country, but midnight madness isn't restricted to basketball. At least it wasn't Monday morning.

"They can't be the only ones who have all the fun," said boys' coach Rich Bellante, whose brainstorm this was. "I thought, 'We're starting a brand new school and a new tradition. Let's be the first school in the section to start fall practice.' "

They probably were.

Bellante and girls' Coach Jennifer Thomas, whose teams won two Southern Section championships at Laguna Hills High, were counting on this night to form a commitment between the coaching staff and the athletes, many of whom they were meeting for the first time.

"My message to the kids from the very beginning was that I was looking forward to working with them for four years," Bellante said. "They weren't just signing up for a cross-country class, but they were signing up for a program, and I'm going to commit myself to (them) and for four years we're going to work together. And that has been reciprocal. The parents have been supportive and the students have been enthusiastic."

Thomas and Bellante lead the world in enthusiasm. At least, they seemed to in the wee hours Monday.

"Rich and Jennifer are bringing a ton of enthusiasm to a new program, and that's what we need," Athletic Director Kurt Westling said. "Within a very short time, they've developed a good working relationship between the coaching staff and the runners."

The program is expected to have between 40 and 50 runners when the Wolverines begin their free-lance schedule. They will enter grade-level meets, have some freshman-sophomore dual meets, and occasionally participate as a non-scoring third team in some varsity dual meets.

Bellante said he wanted to begin the program with a unique experience, and he did. The scene, kind of a Planet Hollywood without Arnold Schwarzenegger, made an impact with parents as well.

About 40 athletes, coaches and parents gathered in the school parking lot, which was unlit except for the floodlights that shot streams of light into the cloud cover.

"For a sports program, it's a great way to start a tradition," said Mike Tuomala, who was there to watch his son, Jeremy, a freshman. "To come out and do something like this is not something you're going to do every day. They'll remember this for years to come."

Tuomala's appearance was no small sacrifice. He had to be at work Monday morning at 8 a.m. and figured he would get about four hours sleep. Some athletes who wouldn't have been able to participate because their parents worked were chauffeured by Thomas, who arrived a few minutes late but made up for it by handing out glow-sticks and some "green Wolverine tinsel" that the girls put in their hair.

After stretching, they began their run. The glow-sticks, in the hands of the runners, gave the group the appearance of a green caterpillar snaking its way along the Aliso Creek Bike Trail. It was supposed to be a light run, about four miles. But Dustin Raddetz, a freshman who has competed in five triathlons over the summer, didn't hold back. And Brent Czajkowski, a sophomore who has trained sporadically this summer, was right there with him at the finish.

"I wanted to be at the top," Czajkowski said. "I want to try to be the best I can be."

Julie Kim, a junior who ran at Capistrano Valley for two years, started cramping in the latter part of the run and fell back behind her friends. But at 1 a.m., she said she was "wired."

"I'm ready to run some more now," she said. "I've met other members of the team, I've met the coach, I got all revved up for running. All summer long I was in that 'I don't want to run' mood. But the coach was enthusiastic and now I'm ready to run."

Jennie Wilden, 13, a freshman who has only run for fun, sized up the evening, speaking for many of her teammates: "I've never run in a group . . . at night . . . this late . . . for a team."

It was a night--or a morning--of firsts, the dawn of Wolverine cross-country.

"I have high expectations for most things I do," said Bellante. "But this exceeded my expectations."

At 1:27 a.m., perhaps drawn by the floodlights, an Orange County Sheriff's Department patrol arrived. It was too late. Midnight madness had already run its course.

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