Valerie Flores of San Pedro High sees a state cross-country championship in her mind's eye. It's right over there, across the hills.
The hills at Pierce College, where Flores injured her hip as a freshman and sophomore before conquering the course and winning the City Section championship last year. And more important, the hills at Mt. San Antonio College, where Flores has yet to meet her own high expectations at one of the state's most prestigious annual events.
In three weeks, Flores will see where she stands--mentally and physically--when she races against some of the state's top competitors at the Mt. SAC Invitational. The event offers Flores, who finished sixth in the state last year, a preview of the competition she might face at season's end when the West Regional finals of the national cross-country championships are staged at Mt. SAC.
"I dread that course, but I'm looking forward to doing well there and getting past the psychological part of it," said Flores, a senior. "I'm going to have a lot more confidence going in there this year."
Flores, 17, received an ego boost last Saturday at Griffith Park when she won the Bell-Jeff Invitational in a course-record 16 minutes 28 seconds, breaking the mark of 16:32 set by Tania Fisher of West Hills Chaminade in 1982.
It was the kind of performance opponents and observers have come to expect from a competitor who has a chance to lead San Pedro to its first City Section girls' cross-country title.
Flores, seniors Julia Gray and Sue Zelaya, juniors Nicole Robidart and Nicole Mardesic and sophomore Melanie Graham are back from last year's team, which finished fourth in the City. Sophomore Heather Rosas, who finished fourth in the City in the 3,200 meters, is in her first season of cross-country with the Pirates.
"Our goal is to win the team title," said Flores, who is also the defending City champion in the 1,600 and 3,200. "We're pushing and supporting each other, and we believe we can do this."
It's hard to believe that when Coach Arturo Carrillo took over the program in 1996, San Pedro barely had enough girls to form a team. From seven runners three years ago, his team has grown to 30 this year.
Carrillo recruited Flores out of a Spanish class he was teaching during her freshman year.
"We had done summer workouts as a team but at the start of school I was asking all of my students to come out for cross-country," Carrillo said. "About two weeks into the year, Valerie raised her hand and said, 'I'm going to come out for cross-country next semester.' I had to tell her, 'Cross-country season is this semester.' "
It did not take Flores long to flourish in the sport.
After training for two weeks, she won the first race she entered, the Bell-Jeff Invitational.
She has been winning races ever since, though injuries prevented her from winning a City title until last season.
As a freshman, Flores injured her hip during the City championships at Pierce. She still qualified for the state meet but limped through the race until she crossed the finish line.
She injured her hip again during the City final as a sophomore, but recovered in time to win the 3,200 championship during track season.
Last year, Flores was treated by a physical therapist throughout the season and remained injury-free. She beat defending champion Natalie Stein of North Hollywood to win the City championship at Pierce and followed that with her sixth-place finish at the state meet in Fresno--the highest finish ever by a City Section girl.
Flores, an honor student who is being recruited by UCLA and UC Irvine among others, intends to improve on that performance this year.
"I've worked hard these past three or four years and I feel it's my time," she said. "I know people are out to beat me and I'm mentally prepared for that."