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Cross-Country Runners Getting With Program

October 27, 1998|CHRIS FOSTER

Christy Villa was ill two weeks ago. She woke up that Saturday morning and knew she couldn't run for her UC Irvine cross-country team in the Triton Invitational at UC San Diego. It just wasn't worth the effort.

"I was laying in bed, thinking there is no way I will run," Villa said. "Then I got up and thought, 'Maybe I just need to jog around a little bit.' Then I thought some more and decided that I would just do my workout, that's all I could do. Then I thought, 'Let's go and see how my body feels.'

"I got there and I had a revelation. I thought about my priorities, my goals and realized that even though I was not feeling great, the race was still worth running."

Villa finished third that day. It was one race, a small one at that, but if there is a moment that defines the season for the Anteater women's cross-country team, that was it.

A year ago, Villa admitted, she wouldn't have run. She might not have even climbed out of bed. Now, she wants to help Irvine ascend to the top of the Big West Conference.

The Anteaters, who will compete in the conference meet Saturday in Denton, Texas, will try to win their first conference championship since 1995. They enter the race as a front-runner; they beat seven conference teams at the Stanford Invitational.

Villa finished fourth in Palo Alto with the seventh fastest time in Irvine history (17 minutes 1 second), but this Anteater team is hardly a one-runner show. They all approach each race as if it's worth running.

Freshman Lisa Gillis has run in sight of Villa most of the season. Seniors Kay Nekota, Carrie Quinn and Jamie Vaicaro were part of the 1995 team. Add to that Allyson Kulak, Kareen Nilsson and Magi Martinez, three solid runners.

It's a combination that could bring home a trophy.

"As I watch them in practice, they are starting to get with the concepts we have," Coach Vince O'Boyle said. "We always talk about team running. Obviously, you look at what Christy is doing this season and she is kind of our ace. Then you have Lisa, who has been running 30 seconds behind Christy. Then you have this pack of runners, who I really think are the key."

Depth is always important. Seven runners from each team compete, the top five finishers score. In 1995, Irvine's Jo-Jo Yaba won the race, but Nekota, Quinn and Vaicaro all scored points. It was the same sort of balance, and teamwork, that is prevalent on this year's squad.

"Everyone is clicking together," Vaicaro said. "Workouts are really charged. It's like a chain reaction. One person starts pushing it and it gets everyone else started. Everyone is putting in the time and effort."

That includes O'Boyle, now in his 17th season at Irvine.

You could hardly call him a slacker in the past--after workouts, he rarely leaves the office before 7 p.m. But O'Boyle saw the need to pick up the pace. Last June, he began talking with the team about the chances of winning the conference and decided to put his workouts where his mouth was.

"Maybe I was too easy workout-wise," O'Boyle said. "I needed to reflect."

Said Vaicaro: "He sprung it on us in camp this summer. We got done with a workout and he gave us an extra one. We kind of went, 'Oh-oh.' We knew what that meant for the rest of the season.

"Doing those extra sets has paid off. It gives your body the strength to punch through at the end of a race."

The difference was noticeable at Stanford on Oct. 3, as Irvine finished sixth out of 19 teams and first among the seven Big West teams in the race. That group included Utah State and Boise State, Irvine's chief challengers this week.

"The Stanford meet gave us confidence," O'Boyle said. "But I've been at this too long and know that someone can lose their focus or come up sick."

The latter shouldn't be a problem.

Said Villa: "You can't be afraid to run, even if you're not feeling well."


While the Irvine women's team has a shot at the conference title, the men's team could finish third, a monumental accomplishment.

The Anteaters will be going against teams that are better funded--Irvine receives about $5,000 from the athletic department, which doesn't cover one scholarship. Still, a top-five finish is expected and a third-place showing is a possibility.

"How do we do it?" O'Boyle said. "I can't answer that question. The kids that come here are overachievers, academically and athletically. They work hard in the classroom and they work hard in their sport. Hard work pays off."

It has this season. In the Stanford meet, four Irvine runners--Robert Frichtel, Chris Evans, Shahram DeZahd and Mike Murray--all topped the best time of any Anteater runner from 1997.

Frichtel has emerged as the team's top runner. But Irvine, which has only two seniors on the roster, has four of its top seven runners back from last year's conference meet. A third-place finish is not out of the question--Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Boise State are the favorites.

"These guys want to run and they love to run," O'Boyle said. "They're not afraid and they're young. They have some running left in them. The future is good."


All is not lost for the women's soccer team in its quest for an NCAA tournament berth. That's the good news. The downside is the Anteaters are in the exact same position as last season, when the selection committee passed them by.

Pacific has locked up the conference title and automatic bid. Irvine can finish second with a victory over Cal State Fullerton Nov. 7. Then it waits to see if the committee thinks it is worthy of an at-large bid.

Two strikes against Irvine: Nonconference losses to UCLA and USC. The Anteaters have another swing when they face 10th-ranked San Diego State Sunday.

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