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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Running on Empty

DeLong Copes With Death of Son While Coaching Canyon High to Successful Season

November 25, 2000|JOHN ORTEGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CANYON COUNTRY — On the surface, Canyon High cross-country Coach Dave DeLong is having the most rewarding season of his 16-year coaching career.

The Canyon boys are favored to win the Division II title in the state championships today at Woodward Park in Fresno and the girls are the No. 2-ranked team in the state.

Yet underneath his easy-going exterior, DeLong is in mourning.

His 15-year old son, Justin, died of leukemia in July, leaving DeLong and his wife Lisa grief-stricken.

"I go home almost every day at lunch and I cry almost every day at lunch," DeLong said. "It's kind of like my release. Lisa and I cry in the morning and we cry at night. Then [the pain] kind of gets out and I'm able to put on this front again and perform my job, especially as a teacher."

Justin, the oldest of the DeLongs' four children, was initially diagnosed with leukemia when he was 5.

But after 3 1/2 years of chemotherapy and another 4 1/2 years with no trace of the disease, Justin appeared to have an excellent chance at a healthy, normal life.

His parents threw a party for him when he turned 13, celebrating his birthday and the fact it had been nearly five years since his last chemotherapy treatment.

A person is considered clinically cured of leukemia when they are free of the disease for more than five years after their last chemotherapy treatment.

"You never totally relax with something like leukemia," Dave said. "But we felt like we had made it past a significant milestone."

Justin, who loved school, running, golf and hamburgers, had a sinus infection in late February and saw a doctor. A blood test, taken at Lisa's insistence, revealed the leukemia had returned.

Intensive chemotherapy led to a remission of the disease from April through June, but it had returned by July 3.

Justin died 12 days later.

The death of his "best friend" devastated DeLong and made him question his religious beliefs.

"You say things like, 'God never promises you a rose garden. Why not my kid?' " DeLong said. "But it's hard to swallow. . . . I'm not angry at God, but I'm definitely confused. That's what Justin said too. We would have talks about death, about what was going to happen, and he'd say, 'I'm not mad. I'm just confused. Why did this happen to me?' "

Justin's death came nine months after the birth of the DeLongs' fourth child, Jacob, and two months before the start of the most successful cross-country season in Canyon history.

Those facts are not lost on Greg Switzer, Hoover cross-country coach and one of DeLong's closest friends.

"God has book-ended this tragedy with a couple of blessings that are intended to soften that blow," Switzer said. "Jacob wasn't planned, but I think he was born for a reason."

So does Lisa DeLong.

"I definitely see Jacob as a gift to help us get through this," she said. "After being [a registered nurse] for 17 years, I can tell you that I should not have gotten pregnant when I did."

The success of Canyon's cross-country teams has not been entirely unexpected.

Juniors Luke Llamas and Jameson Mora and sophomore Ryan Morgan were members of the squad that placed 10th in the Southern Section Division I championships last year. They followed that by running 9:32.75, 9:36.95 and 9:56.26, respectively, in the 3,200 meters in track.

Senior Nick Zoetewey transferred from Saugus last summer after running 4:20.90 in the 1,600 and winning the Foothill League cross-country title.

Juniors Jazmin Treadway and Barrie Truex and sophomore Brenda Stevens were three of the top four runners on a Canyon girls' team that placed ninth in the section final.

When they were joined by talented freshmen Leanne Riggin, Alysia Johnson and Lauren Walker, the ingredients were there for a team that has run faster over Mt. San Antonio College's 2.95-mile course than the 1995 Canyon squad that won the state Division I title.

But talent isn't the only reason Canyon has advanced to the state championships.

DeLong and his eight assistant coaches have developed and nurtured that talent.

"[DeLong] has become a genius this cross-country season," said Switzer, who has coached four All-American runners at Hoover. "He's been able to step back and let all these assistant coaches that he brought on board implement the workouts he's designed. . . . And it's not just the varsity kids who are excited about running. The lower-level kids are working their butts off too."

DeLong, who was coached by Switzer when he ran at Burroughs, credits his assistant coaches for much of Canyon's success.

"I've done less coaching than ever before," he said. "I feel more like a team mother. I'm kind of the rah-rah guy."

Cal Linam, one of Canyon's five paid assistants along with Paul Broneer, Bryan Lowe, Katie Valdes and Vicki Goodwin, said the first few meets of the season were extremely hard for DeLong because this would have been Justin's freshman year.

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