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Running Hard

Santa Ana's Cross-Country Program Lacks the Advantages of Some Other Teams, but Still Manages to Win

September 30, 1997|MARTIN BECK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SANTA ANA — Cross-country is a sport with a heritage rooted in the English countryside. And though many high school runners still enjoy dusty trails of rolling regional parks and invigorating climbs through hills, others are forced to take a different path.

Take, for instance, Orange County's top-ranked boys' cross-country team, which does almost all its training on the asphalt and concrete around Santa Ana High School.

"Our hill work," jokes Santa Ana Coach Darel Newman, "is on speed bumps."

But the flat, urban training grounds certainly haven't hindered the Saints, who have been the county's most consistently strong team in the 1990s. In four of the past five years, Santa Ana has advanced to the state meet and appears poised to do it again this season.

It might seem like an unlikely success story. After all, there are significant obstacles to athletic excellence at Santa Ana.

The students come mostly from immigrant families on the low end of the socioeconomic scale. Priorities other than participation in sports--putting food on the table, for one--usually take precedence.

But you don't have to spend much time with the Saints' cross-country team to discover there's no secret to its success. It's a simple recipe: Take talented athletes, give them support and guidance, and watch them rise to the occasion.

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There's little to indicate the 25 boys warming up easily on the Santa Ana track are the building blocks of a cross-country dynasty. In their red T-shirts and worn running shoes, the group could easily pass for a garden variety physical education class.

But take a closer look:

Powerfully built Alfonso Leon finished eighth in the state Division II race in his first season of high school cross-country last year.

Wiry Juan Salgado runs stride for stride with Leon in most races. They are among the top runners in the county.

The pack behind them--Luis Perez, Omar Mateo, Jorge Pena, Miguel Bolanos, Jose Cholula and Miguel Ortiz, not necessarily in that order--isn't too far back. Depth is a strength of this team. It's still early in the season, but the Saints expect to soon have seven runners break 16 minutes for three miles.

Today's workout is an easy one, explains Roger Nava, the assistant in charge of the boys' team. The runners will run about five miles round trip on the streets south of campus.

The route is about the only way to go without encountering heavy traffic and traffic signals that would interrupt their steady pace. Anyone who has run in the city knows there are hazards. Santa Ana runners manage to avoid them fairly well, but over the years runners have been chased by dogs, hit by cars and even had someone take pot shots at them with a BB gun.

Current Saints, however, don't have any horror stories. About only problems they face on runs near campus are gang members who occasionally taunt them.

"They tell us we're jerks," Leon said. "That we are wasting our time and should be at home kicking back and watching TV."

Leon and his teammates easily laugh off that type of reaction, especially because it's the exception. Most of the people they see in the well-groomed neighborhoods cheer them on.

One family has even set up a water stop, complete with a sign--"SAHS X-Country Water Station"--taped to a palm tree, in the front yard along the team's regular route.

On the whole it's a supportive environment, even though Nava wouldn't mind more varied terrain. "It would be nice to step out of your high school and see a couple of hills," he said, "but, you know, we can live with it."

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Actually, the Saints are doing much more than that. They are thriving and that's, in large part, because of Nava's guidance. He was a standout runner for Santa Ana, leading the Saints to the first league cross-country championship in school history, the 1988 Century League title.

After two years at Rancho Santiago College, Nava rejoined the Saints as a walk-on assistant in 1991. The next season he took over the boys' program and the Saints finished eighth in the state Division I meet.

In 1993 the team won the Orange County Championships and the section Division I-AA title, before finishing second in the state to Thousand Oaks, the top-ranked team in the nation.

Nava, 26, has done well to maintain that momentum.

"He brings his past experience as a competitor," said Santa Ana Athletic Director Frank Alvarado, "and very strong technical knowledge of running. And he's worked very hard to make himself a good coach.

"Finally, he brings a great enthusiasm and love of the sport."

Of course, Nava stepped into a program with strong foundations. It hasn't always been that way. Alvarado ran for a Santa Ana team that qualified for the postseason in 1968, but in 1980 when he came back as an assistant coach, there were only about 10 runners on the boys' team.

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