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Esperanza Sets a Course for State Title

Girls' cross-country: The Aztecs, who finished second at Division I championships last year, have standout Pam Smith and depth to win it all.


It was just a minor equipment adjustment last month, but it was enough to briefly cloud Esperanza's chances of winning a state Division I girls' cross-country title.

Pam Smith had just rolled out of bed when she felt a sharp pain in her lower back. Smith, a Times all-county first-team selection last season, originally thought she had simply twisted the wrong direction, but it wasn't long before the suspected culprit was uncovered.

"The injury had popped up while we were going through a period of breaking in some new orthotics," Esperanza Coach Rich Medellin said. "We were trying to correct some of the imbalances in her foot-striking."

It was believed that the orthotics--insoles in the shoes that align the base of the foot--had triggered the pain in her lower back. When the orthotics were removed, the discomfort began to fade.

"It's a lot better now, I'm back to running," Smith said. "It could have been a number of things, but I think it was related to breaking in the orthotics."

Smith's health and participation are vital to the team's chances of improving on its second-place finish at last season's state Division I championships, where Smith gave her team valuable points by finishing 19th (18:59) individually. Along the way, Smith placed eighth at the Southern Section finals and won the Sunset League title after going undefeated in league dual meets.

Smith also set a course record at Fairview Park, finishing the 3.1-mile course in 18 minutes 31 seconds during a non-scoring meet against Mater Dei. She continued to finish in the low 18s until she ran what she called her breakthrough race, a 17:49 for 3.1 miles in a Sunset League dual meet at Huntington Beach.

Smith wasn't always enthused about distance running, however. She played water polo her freshman year, but suffered a knee injury that season and was sidelined for a full year. She recovered in time to go out for the girls' track and field team her sophomore year, then turned heads by winning the Sunset League title in the 1,600.

"It was about then that cross-country started to grow on me," Smith said.

Esperanza returned six of seven runners on last year's team, but it was Smith who produced the best results in her first full season. Going into her senior year, Smith admits she has some anxiety about duplicating her accomplishments.

"There are some pressures, but I'm just trying to have fun my senior year," she said. Like last season, Smith will have a strong supporting cast to push her during training and competition. The Aztecs also return senior Kristin Chadez, junior Lisa Massoth and sophomore Maribeth Buche.

Medellin agrees that some teams may have a better runner or two, but not too many can match the Aztecs' depth.

"We have eight girls that are decent," he said. "Our depth is definitely our best asset this season."

The Aztecs skipped the Laguna Hills Invitational last weekend in favor of participating in another non-scoring meet with Mater Dei. They are also going to bypass this weekend's Woodbridge Invitational and head to Northern California for a meet in Grass Valley.

"It's something different," Smith said. "It's a chance to race against teams from different states."

When the Southern Section and state finals roll around in November, Esperanza expects to get its stiffest challenge from Yucaipa, which won the Division I state title last year.

"You can say we've developed somewhat of a rivalry," Smith said.

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