Thursday, November 3, 2011

Eastwood Boys- State Contenders

I sit here with a lot of anticipation 2 days before the Region 1 Cross Country Championships at Mae Simmons Park in Lubbock, Texas. For the first time since the 1986 season, my Eastwood Troopers have a very realistic shot at finishing in the top 3 and advancing to the State Meet the following weekend. Let me go back a bit in time here.

(the 84 EW squad with Coach Doug Littlejohn)

From 1983-1987 the Eastwood Boys Cross Country program was among the elite of Texas. The years I was a part of the team were 82-85. From 1983-85 we were ranked no worse than 7th in the State at any point. The highlight of this era was the 84 season which ended with a Regional Championship and the bronze medals at the State Championship. We had several younger runners (Henry Garcia and Tony Urrutia) on that squad who took that experience to keep that streak alive (after the graduation of Mike Montes and myself). Eastwood once again returned to the State meet and rankings for one last time in 86. That Garcia-led team surprised a bit, but I guess what surprised me the most was that is where it stopped. Eastwood had a handful of individuals (Eric Flores and Tony Simonnetti) who qualified to the State meet but the program fell into a period of mediocrity. It happens, success can be cyclical. That cycle started to end when my old friend and rival Mike McLain took over the Eastwood program in 2001. He took over a program that had fallen to only 2 girls and 5 boys on the entire roster. Mike built the program back into a power that is always going to be one to be reckoned with at the local level. Both boys and girls teams have had many Regional appearances since McLain took over. A lot of the attention locally has lately fallen on programs such as Austin and Jefferson. These schools have fielded some great programs, but we must remember Eastwood has had to contend with running in class 5-A.
The past couple years have been really building towards this season. There has been an influx of talent coming into the school, mix this with great coaching (lets not forget the great Coach Pearson) and the results are starting to show. I have been fortunate enough to get to know some of the kids who have been through the program in the past couple years. The most talented of all is recent graduate Juan Blanco (see my blog on Juan for more, Juan below at Region 1 last year in XC).

 There is no doubt that Juan's success at both the Regional and State level, and now in NCAA Division 1 at UTEP, has been a good influence on this years young team. Coming out of last years track season, I was expecting the front runners to be Elias Leija-Garza and Brian Casillas. They have been, but the big surprise has been Ryan Saenz who has developed into one of the cities best. These 3 have formed a power trio of sorts, running up front and pulling their teammates (Richard Mora, Steven Rios, Caleb Buntyn and Alex Blanco) closely behind them. While long distance running is largely an individual sport, that is not the case here. This is a team effort, to be successful you must pull your team with you. It looks like this trio has learned that lesson.
Eastwood is entering the week as the 7th ranked team in Texas according to the definitive source, Dyestat. They have the task of facing the States top ranked program, Southlake Carroll while in Lubbock. In Carroll, the Eastwood boys are having to face the same type of squad we did in 84 with the nations top team Conroe McCullough/The Woodlands. That team set a state meet record of 28 points that stands to this day. The Region 1 record of 29 points by the Mike McLain/David Medlin led Hanks squad in 86 is in serious jeopardy. Many experts have SL Carroll as the top ranked squad in the US. This is meant only to encourage the current EW boys. To be the best, you have to run with the best and this Saturday is your chance. There are 3 spots for the taking, I figure there are 5 squads (Carroll, Eastwood, Amarillo Tascosa, Lewisville Hebron and Marcus) in the hunt. Eastwood has already taken a great step confidence wise with wins over Tascosa and Hebron earlier this year. Hebron has perhaps the best 1-2 punch in the region in Kevin Hoyos and Robert Domanic, but falls off after the #3 runner. The EW top runners need to stay in contact, but most importantly, the 4-7 runners need to stay close to them. Believe you can do it Troopers, because you can. Run harder than you ever have before, run this race as if it's your last, so that it's not! If so, the picture below will not be the last one taken of this team getting some medals.

Best of luck to a deserving and talented team. Start a new Eastwood legacy.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Have we lost our sense of community?

Here we are at the start of another Fall XC season. One thing that I have wanted to touch on for some time is what I perceive as a loss of the sense of community that we all enjoyed growing up. I have heard stories of coaches, grown adults, actually talking "trash" and making derogatory remark towards other schools runners and coaches. Huh??!! How and when did this become acceptable?
Growing up, El Paso was an absolute hotbed for XC talent. The amount of team and individual state medals won is staggering. We ran hard with the aim to win, but we also wanted our neighbors to experience the same success. Teams who had been to the big show (State Meet) mentored younger teams, pulled them along. My team, Eastwood, got a lot of good advice from defending Regional and State champs El Paso High before we went on to win our own Regional title. I'd like to think we did the same thing for Hanks when they succeeded us as Regional Champs.
Everyone was friends, many still are 3 decades later. I had a respect for my coach that was only topped by the respect I had for my own father. He was that important a person in my life. We also had great respect for, and were shown the same respect by, other school coaches. Everyone looked out for everyone. We raced each other hard week after week on Saturday morning and then went to the same gatherings on a Saturday night. Our XC team was more likely to get together with other XC runners than non-runners from our own school. This group of YISD State qualifiers in 1984 were all very familiar with each other, on and off the course.

I think it was this sense of community that led to much of the success that was experienced. At the Region and State levels, prior to the meet, all of the runners came out for the "El Paso!" chant. It was loud and in way, a show of force. It meant something and it served notice to other cities teams that they had to deal with us as a whole. Many times they did not deal to well.
I guess all that I'm saying, is, respect each other as friends and rivals, but most importantly, representatives of your community. I hope that some of the current generation of El Paso XC runners reads this and tells me I am wrong, that it is the same. If not, band together and make me wrong.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Juan Blanco- El Paso's best miler in 31 years.

As the 2011 High School Track Season got underway in El Paso, TX this year, I thought many times that is was now or never for Eastwood SR Juan Blanco. I had paid very close attention to Juan's progress since Coach Mike McLain pointed him out to me in one of his classes during Juan's Freshman year. He ran a pretty good 800 that year but it was his 4:30.0 as a Sophomore that made people start to notice.
Juan pushed that down to 4:26.5 his Junior year to set a school record.  As he started his SR Track Season I felt he could really push the EW Record under 4:20, a mark that is not met often in El Paso. He did that early on running 4:19.6 in AZ right behind Austin's Isaac Spencer. He also started running some great marks in the 3200 and established himself as the favorite in District 1-5a for both events.
After capturing both events at the District meet, it was an epic battle with Austin's Spencer that really thrust him into the State's elite. Spencer and Blanco battled it out with Spencer edging him by the smallest of margins, 4:16.04 to 4:16.07. To have 2 runners go that fast in a local meet was almost unheard of. The time edged Juan up the State rankings and it made a dent in the early National Rankings. But, Region 1-5a is typically a very strong distance region and there was sure to be a lot of competition from the usual Dallas area schools. 
Juan started the Regional meet with a gutty performance in the 3200 finishing third in 9:29.65 behind Craig Lutz (Marcus) and Kevyn Hoyos (Hebron). His time was good for the second best performance ever by an EW runner and made people around the Region finally notice. It was dissapointing to finish one spot out of a State berth, but served notice he would be one to deal with the next day in the 1600.
The next day could not have been scripted any better as Juan led, fell back, battled back and then gutted it out to win the Region 1 Championship and earn his ticket to Austin. Juan became the first El Paso Regional Champ in 5-A in close to a decade. He turned back Trevor Gilley of Southlake Carroll, a school who is not used to losing 1600 titles in Lubbock. (pic of Juan below, winning Region 1, courtesy of Mike McLain and Maria Barros)

This alone could have been considered one of the most succesful 1600 careers in about a decade in El Paso. It was what came next that cemented Juan as one of El Paso's all-time greats. At the State Meet in Austin, lining up against the State's (and in many cases, the Nation's ) elite, Juan raced to a 5th place finish. While that alone may seem to be a bit dissapointing it is the time that needs to be noticed. Juan blasted the second fastest 1600 in El Paso history, 4:11.48. Only Bel Air's great Sergio Oaxaca had run faster at 4:08.9 in 1980. In the 31 years that followed the closest anyone came to Oaxaca's mark were Gilbert Contreras (EPHS) at 4:11.5 and Alan Culpepper (Coronado) at 4:12.3. There were others over the years such as:
Martin Saenz (EPHS)-4:13.1 in 1981
Frank Lozano (Austin)-4:13.3 in 2001
Javier Muniz (Bel Air)-4:14.9 in 1987
Prior to 1980 the full mile was run in Texas, El Paso had State Champs several times over. The best El Paso prep performances were from:
Tony Zuniga (EPHS)-4:15.2 (worth 4:13.9 for 1600)
Ruben Dominguez (Austin)-4:17.4 (converts to 4:16.0)
In the matter of a year Juan took himself from a level of a good local runner to one of the all time greats. Many people mentioned prior here were either Olympians (Culpepper) or in the very least, NCAA All-Americans (Zuniga, Contreras). One of the all-time greats, Bowie's Javier Montes never ran sub 4:20 before representing the United States in the 1952 Olympics. Yes, in his case we must consider the era. Alan Culpepper became a 2 time Olympian, NCAA Champion and many times over a National Champion. He is one of the very few runners ever to run both a sub 4 mile as well as a sub 2:10 marathon. Oaxaca and Contreras both ran sub 4 equivalents (converted from 1500 meters) while at Auburn and Arkansas. 
Why am I getting off on this slight history kick? To establish exactly what type of company Mr. Blanco has put himself in. As an EW alumni, I watched his race live online, and couldn't have been prouder of the effort he put forth. I immediately spoke to Coach McLain after the race, letting him know where Juan now stood. I knew that as a competitor he might be a bit down after finishing 5th but his time, his time!! Since the switch to 1600 in 1980, a 4:11 would have won 17 of the 31 years. Just saying. Best of luck to you in your career at UTEP Juan.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lukas "Superman" Verzbicas

I didn't intend to go right back in to a blog about Lukas all over again, but what he has accomplished since I last blogged has been THE story of Prep distance running.
I covered his performances going in to the two national XC meets pretty thoroughly. Remember, I noted the runner who scared me most as a challenger was Edward Cheserek. The first of the two meets was the NXN in Portland. The course was extremely wet and muddy and about as sloppy of conditions one could expect going into race day. The main guys (Lukas, Cheserek, Lutz, Moussa, Rosa, Gedyon) went to the front early. Lukas made a decisive move about 3k or so in and that was the race. Simple enough. The chase pack was down to Cheserek and Lutz and honestly, there was no doubt. Cheserek did gain a bit of ground at the end, but to be fair Lukas was letting up as the win was in the bag and he had one more big one to go.
On to San Diego for the FootLocker Finals where he was the defending champion. Lukas and MW runner up Futsum Zeinasellassie broke away fairly early on. Lukas took the workload on and as the race wore on simply ran the race out of Futsum. He eased up once again at the end and practically walked across the finish line. It was a truly epic career for Lukas in XC. He did (as I predicted) win the never before done double of NXN and FootLocker. He was a 2 time (2009, 2010) FootLocker National Champ and he NEVER lost a race in his Prep XC career.
In the couple months that followed he announced his signing with the University of Oregon and stated he would run Indoor Track where he would debut against the pro's at the New Balance meet in the mile. Meet #1 wound up with Lukas running a 4:03.88 for the full mile (4:02.5 for 1600) and finished ahead of Olympian Leo Manzano. This mark was good for #3 all time. A couple weeks later he lined up against Bernard Lagat at the Armory in NY as both were chasing records for the 2 mile. Lagat was chasing the US record and Lukas was clear he was chasing Gerry Lindgren's storied 2 mile record of 8:40.0. Lagat crushed the record with an 8:10.07 and Lukas managed to come home in 8:43.24 splitting 3200 at just under 8:40.
Over the next couple weeks it was announced that he was registered in the mile, 2 mile and 5k at the NBIN at the Armory. Could he actually pull off the triple? Many speculated he would run the 5k on Thursday and then pick one on Saturday. Several days prior he announced he was indeed going for the triple. His good friend (and IL XC runner) Kevin McDowell had just been diagnosed with cancer. McDowell finished 3rd to Lukas's 4th at the World Jr. Triathlon Championships. Lukas ran with him in mind.
Thursday nights 5k was a given, the only question was by how much would he break his own national HS record by. His 14:18 from 2009 stood as the mark to beat. Lukas made it his race from early on and started lapping runners after about the 6th lap. He crossed in a new NR of 14:06.78 (2 mile split was sub 9) and may have challenged the 14 minute barrier if he didn't spend the bulk of his race running in lanes 2 and 3 passing lapped runners. Even 2nd place finisher Eddie Owens (who just posted a 1:07 1/2 marathon) was lapped.
On to Saturday. The first race of the day, the 2 mile and the rematch with Edward Cheserek. Once again, Lukas went to the front. He ran lap after lap at a steady clip with Cheserek glued to his heels. Lapped runnners once again became an issue about the 3/4 mark. With 2 laps to go, Lukas started to let his stride out, like Futsum at FL, Lukas had run Cheserek's legs dead. With  a lap to go the only question was would he break the record. Lukas broke the tape in 8:40.70 to Cheserek's 8:42.66, good for #2 and 3 all time. There is no doubt that Lukas would have broken the long standing Lindgren mark if he wasn't weaving around lapped runners.
After that race one would figure he was done. Nope, not this kid. In a race that featured 5 of the fastest 6 HS milers in the US, Lukas lined up a mere 70 minutes later. He tucked in the middle of the pack, and then about halfway in started to move up. With about a quarter or so to go he took control. I knew at that point, nobody would take this from him, Chad Noelle (the Millrose mile champ) tried to challenge and failed followed by Elias Gedyon with the same results. Lukas blasted the last 200 and came home with the win in what may have been the greatest all around prep distance running performance ever. He finished the weekend with a NR in the 5k, the #2 all time performance in the deuce and then outkicked the supposed kickers for the win in the mile. Absolutely an epic performance to cap an epic career. Before he goes off to UO he has said he will run the Dream Mile at the Adidas Grand Prix again as well as go one last time for the World Jr. Champs in the triathlon. Hopefully we can see him gun for German Fernandez's outdoor NR in the 2 mile. The same challengers will more than likely present themselves in the early summer, and I'm sure the results will be the same. In the immediate future he will be running the Shamrock Shuffle 8k here in Chicago. It will be interesting to see him against this field of elite runners.

What a tremendous pleasure it has been to watch this kid run here the past few years.

I got the chance to go back to the Eastwood Invitational after many, many years. 25 years ago I won this meet in the 3200 and the meet is still going strong and better than ever. I got a chance to see many of my old competitors and my old coach, Doug Littlejohn. It was great to see the EW runners in action for the first time.

(l-r, Dave Medlin, EP's all time HS record holder in the 3200 at 9:01, Coach Doug Littlejohn, the only coach ever in El Paso history to coach an El Paso school to the Regional Track Title, in 1981, and myself.)

It was a great pleasure to watch the EW distance runners in action. At the time of this blog, Coach McLain has churned out a 1600 meter factory. Senior Juan Blanco leads the way with a blazing 4:19.6 (breaking his own school record), Junior Elias Leija Garza is at 4:32 and super freshman Brian Casillas at 4:37. Throw in a slab of guys in the 4:50 area (Luis Salazar, Alex Blanco, Caleb Buntyn, Steven Rios and Steven Wallace) and the potential for a great 4 x 1600 squad in the post season exists. Getting one of the last group of guys down under 4:40 and the potential is there for a sub 18. Post season EW kids??   With EW's great ability in the sprint relays, the making is definitely there for a blazing distance medley. Would be interesting to see. The talent and coaching is definitely there.