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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Cross-country coach goes the extra mile

Ilmar Rodriguez of Los Angeles Santee High helps athletes be good runners and builds their character and confidence for everyday life.

November 20, 2011|Eric Sondheimer

Thirty-five years ago, when I had just graduated from high school and was starting out in journalism, one of my first assignments was covering City Section cross-country.

I had to copy the names of the top three finishers in each league race and write a short story about what happened. Even then, I was curious about these crazy high school kids who ran 50 to 60 miles a week, didn't receive much attention but loved the challenge.

So there I was last week at the City finals at Pierce College, looking for a little inspiration. And I found it after meeting the 33-year-old coach of Los Angeles Santee High, Ilmar Rodriguez.

Rodriguez ran cross-country for Woodland Hills Taft in the 1990s, taking a bus from near Koreatown to attend school.

"I was one of the favorites in 1995," he said. "I passed out on the hill because I didn't drink enough water. The last thing I remember was being at Kaiser hospital."

He attended Cal State Los Angeles and later got his teaching credential and was hired as a physical education teacher and cross-country coach at Santee in 2007.

"I love helping kids," he said. "I love being a teacher. I love coaching."

To understand the effect Rodriguez has made, senior Edgar Gonzalez tells a story from his sophomore year.

"I didn't really like school," Gonzalez said. "I remember waking up with that feeling, 'Oh, maybe I'll go tomorrow.' I wouldn't do my homework, so I wouldn't show up to class."

Rodriguez kept calling Gonzalez's mother trying to get him to class.

"I fell in love with running," Gonzalez said. "I couldn't imagine anything else that would have helped me out. I thank him for so many things. For example, talking to my mother. I never expected anybody from school to get so attached to me and have the opportunity to talk to my parents."

Gonzalez has gone from receiving Fs and Ds on his report card to getting A's and Bs. He finished seventh in the City Section final and helped Santee claim second place in the team competition. He'll compete Saturday at the state championships in Fresno.

But whether Gonzalez wins or loses means nothing compared to what he discovered about himself thanks to a coach who refused to give up on him.

"It's opened so many doors for me," Gonzalez said. "I have friends in cross-country who influenced me to apply for colleges, keep up my work and remind me to do certain things."

Rodriguez is using the discipline that comes with running to challenge his 42 team members.

"A lot of them come from families that are single homes, so I try to help them graduate and teach them about the cross-country culture," he said. "It's a passion."

During the summer, he'd drive students to Griffith Park or Exposition Park for workouts. He'd send text messages, "Wake up." He'd fight for them just as hard as they fight to finish every race.

In a time of teacher cutbacks, Santee has fought hard to keep Rodriguez, who's the low person in seniority on the P.E. staff. One day, the school that opened in 2005 is going to win its first City team championship, and I have no doubt Rodriguez will be the coach.

But the more important statistic will be how many students he has helped graduate.

So this Thanksgiving week, the cross-country team can be thankful for having a coach and teacher who's truly making a difference.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATSondheimer

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