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Orange's Russell Feeds Off His Tough Competition

Cross-Country: A little pasta goes a long way for this Panther, who is among the top runners to beat this season.

September 16, 1996|MICHAEL ITAGAKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

ORANGE — Not many people can say they were done in by a bad night's sleep and some fajitas. But that's Nick Russell's story.

"I learned last year that it's not good to stay up until midnight before a big race," said Russell, a senior cross-country standout at Orange High. "I went to El Modena's homecoming the night before last year's Orange County Championships and I didn't eat my usual pasta.

"I had fajitas."

So Russell managed a measly second-place finish in last year's race behind Huntington Beach's Tony Trueba, the two-time Sunset League champion and Times Orange County selection.

But if the menu would have been different . . .

"I don't think I'm that superstitious," Russell said. "And I don't have a teddy bear like [Olympic gold-medal swimmer] Amanda Beard. I just need my pasta, salad and bread before my races. Hey, if it works, don't change it, right?"

Lots has worked for Russell recently.

He helped Orange reach the state championships last season and led the Panthers to a third consecutive Century League title. Russell has been part of a team that has won 17 consecutive league dual meets, breaking a 30-year-old Orange record.

And Saturday, Russell won the Laguna Hills Invitational, beating Santa Margarita senior Michael Murray, The Times Orange County runner of the year in 1995, to further prove he has developed into one of the county's elite runners.

But before Saturday's race, Russell insisted Murray and Trueba should be considered the front-runners this season. And Russell enjoyed his lesser notoriety.

"Everyone knows who Tony and Mike are," Russell said. "In fact, at our first unofficial race with El Dorado this season, after I won, the guy who finished second came up and asked me who I was.

"I said, 'I'm Nick Russell.' Then he said, 'I thought you graduated already.' "

Russell's opponents aren't happy they still have to compete with him, but Orange's first-year Coach, Don Burnette, is tickled to coach Russell one more year.

"Nick is motivated, a good leader and the captain of our team," said Burnette, a former Orange High runner who was the assistant coach at Orange for the past nine seasons. "A guy who works hard like Nick is what every coach needs."

That hard work has helped Russell firmly entrench himself in Orange cross-country history. He already has the third-best time on the school's home course at Eisenhower Park.

Russell has placed himself alongside some of the school's finest runners, from Dale Story, who set the national interscholastic record for the mile, then at 4:11.0 in 1959, to Jaime Martinez, The Times Orange County runner of the year in 1993 now at Azusa Pacific.

"Jaime is in a class by himself," Russell said. "I'm just trying to do my own thing."

That used to be soccer. "He started out in soccer and he didn't run as a freshman," Burnette said. "Nick kind of fell into track."

Said Russell: "[Former Orange Coach Ed] Cantu got me into track and cross-country. I just started it as training for soccer."

After running well as a freshman, Russell made an immediate impact on the cross-country team as a sophomore. His big splash came at the 1994 Orange County Championships.

"That was one of my first big races and I didn't really know anyone," Russell said. "So for the sophomores, I just heard, 'Watch out for Tony Trueba.' I didn't know Tony, so I just kept looking for him and looking for him.

"The race ended and I found out later that I had finished four seconds in front of Tony. I think that's when I first thought, 'Hmm, this could be good.' "

So Russell dropped soccer last season and concentrated his efforts on running. He continued to develop and improve although he isn't blessed with great speed.

"Nick is a strong runner," said Burnette, who feels Russell can run at the Division I college level. "The harder the course, the better he feels. He needs the hills."

That's why Russell has flourished at Orange. The Panthers' home course is one of the county's toughest, Eisenhower Park.

Last season, Russell finished second at the league finals to Santa Ana Valley's Luis Estrada, but that was on a flatter course at Yorba Regional Park. Russell could get his revenge when Estrada and Santa Ana Valley meet Orange in a key league race at Eisenhower Park later this season.

But Russell isn't concerned with individual achievements. "We want to win league and everyone is beatable this year," Russell said. "There is no dominant team. It will all come down to who wants it more."

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