Her Running May Be a Matter of Course, but the Reason Darcy Arreola Is Enrolled at CS Northridge Is Purely Academic : Oversight Reroutes Star of Class

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

As she sliced her way through the Cal State Northridge campus during the CSUN cross-country invitational, Darcy Arreola opened a sizable lead over the rest of the field.

“You’re not surprised, are you?” one spectator shouted to another as Arreola, running easily, surged about 20 yards ahead of UCLA’s Denise Ball.

The other man nodded his head.

Arreola, 18, may be only a freshman, but she is a two-time San Diego Section cross-country champion and two-time San Diego 1,600-meter champion in track. Her winning time of 4:42.77 in the 1,600 at the state meet last June converts to a 4:44.43 mile, the fastest run by an American high school girl this year.


The victory at CSUN, in which she finished 17 seconds ahead of Ball, may have been her first as a collegian, but nobody expects it to be her last.

It’s not surprising to find her leading a race. What’s surprising is to find her at Northridge.

Ask CSUN Coach Don Strametz how such a talented athlete wound up at CSUN, and he gets a little defensive.

He talks about the quality of education at CSUN, and about how CSUN athletes aren’t under as much pressure to perform as their Division I counterparts.

In truth, though, Arreola is at CSUN almost by default. She was a victim of the NCAA’s new academic standards for freshmen, which require a core curriculum of high school courses that includes two years of science. Unaware of the rules and not properly advised, she completed only 1 1/2 years of science at Grossmont High near San Diego.

“I was mad because I didn’t know,” said Arreola, who didn’t discover the oversight until after the start of her final semester. “There was nothing I could do.”

Actually, she might have been able to make up the deficiency during the summer, but like many other athletes across the country, she was unaware of the nuances of the new rules.

Since the NCAA’s standards apply only to Division I schools, and because Arreola didn’t want to move too far away from home and didn’t want to go to a junior college, CSUN became the booby prize.

Not that Arreola is complaining.

She said she likes almost everything about Northridge--the campus, her teammates, her coaches, her new independence. Not even the smog bothers her, she said.

Arreola, whose slight 5-7, 108-pound frame gives her the look of an elite runner, has responded well to her comfortable surroundings.

In CSUN’s first two meets this fall, she set school records for the courses at UCLA and San Diego State. After running poorly at Stanford, a performance she called “embarrassing” and attributed to poor diet and a lack of sleep in the week before the race, she came back to win easily at CSUN. She’ll be one of the favorites Saturday at the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. championships in San Luis Obispo.

Still, this isn’t how Arreola planned it.

“I wasn’t even considering Northridge,” she said.

She got cards and letters from all over the country last year, but didn’t consider many of them, either. Most of the letters are still sitting in a box in her family’s home in El Cajon.

She made a recruiting trip to Arizona, and she said she was mildly interested in Washington State, but she really didn’t want to leave her hometown. San Diego State was her first choice.

“I didn’t really take an interest in any other school,” she said.

Arreola comes from a close-knit family, thrown together by tragedy. When she was 3, her mother was killed. Darcy and her three brothers and sisters--Paul, 20, Rita, 19, and Christine, 15--were adopted by their grandfather, Fernando, and his second wife, Diane.

“It was a big change when you’re so young, going to a whole different home,” Darcy said. “I don’t really remember, but I’m sure that was why I was so shy. . . . Maybe I try to block it out.”

Although her sisters and brother were loud and outgoing, Darcy was painfully withdrawn as a child.

“You wouldn’t believe how shy she used to be,” Diane said. “She would never talk to anybody. In fact, when she was very small, she barely even talked to us. Her teachers used to be very concerned about the fact that she didn’t interact with people and wouldn’t talk to the teachers.”

Success in running brought Darcy out of her shell, Diane said.

She was athletically inclined as a child, but it took some coaxing from her brother to make her serious about her training.

He bribed her into running by offering her doughnuts. Then, when she got older, he offered her shoes and running clothes.

“He had goofed off and didn’t fulfill his potential because of the mistakes he made by not training,” Diane said.

By the time she was a high school sophomore, Darcy was fast enough to win the 800 and finish second in the 1,600 at the San Diego track championships in 1984. Later that year, she won the San Diego cross-country championship and was chosen by International Sports Exchange to run in a 10K in London on New Year’s Day, 1985.

By then, she didn’t need to be coaxed into training.

She became so dedicated that she was irritated when she wasn’t given time to run during her recruiting trip to Arizona last year.

“You never had to worry about her not doing her workout,” said Grossmont High Coach Richard Bullock. “She’s just really a bound and determined young lady.”

She’s not pushy, though. In fact, although she’s friendly and courteous--"a very beautiful girl,” Bullock said--she’s still shy.

“I’m her best friend and she doesn’t even open up to me,” said Richard Watkins, who ran with Arreola in high school. “I don’t think she’ll ever open up to anybody--unless she gets married or something.”

Of course, it wasn’t her personality that attracted recruiters.

And it isn’t her demure manner that they’ll miss.

“The thing that hurts on my end is, here was a chance to work with a quality athlete--that is, one of the top 5% in the United States,” said San Diego State Coach Jim Serveny. “And we had to lose her because of a small problem with the NCAA requirements.”

Cerveny recommended Arreola to CSUN. And CSUN to Arreola.

His loss became Strametz’s gain.

But the CSUN coach said he doesn’t regard Arreola as a meal ticket. He plans to bring her along slowly.

Arreola, he said, needs work in the weight room and needs to increase her weekly mileage from the 45 she ran in high school to about 60. She’s plenty fast, he said, but must add strength.

“I’m working on my arms and it helps a lot,” said Arreola, who lifts weights twice a week. “Before, when I ran cross-country, it was my arms that hurt the most. And now my arms don’t hurt at all when I run.”

Strametz believes that Arreola won’t reach her potential for another 10 years.

“No matter how great she becomes in the next four years,” Strametz said, “her best running will still be left in her. We’re not going to break her down to try to make her the greatest middle-distance runner in America over the next four years. She will continue to improve.”

Arreola has set some goals, but she’s not saying what they are.

One thing she did volunteer, though: “I want to run forever.”

The walls in her dorm room are covered with posters of her idol, Mary Decker Slaney.

“She wants to be in the Olympics,” Watkins said. “She’s not going to be a major scientist or anything. Running is her life.”