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CROSS-COUNTRY : Silva’s Pitch Keeps Saddleback on Top

Mel Silva coached the boys’ cross-country team at Saddleback High School when it was the worst in Orange County. Now, it’s one of the best in the state.

Saddleback didn’t win a league dual meet from 1983-1987. Now, the Roadrunners are trying for a second consecutive Southern Section championship and their third Sea View League title in a row.

“I think my biggest satisfaction is not the championships, not the attention, but seeing the smile on a kid’s face when he gets a personal best,” Silva said. “Or when somebody says they can’t do it and they do, that’s the best.”

Silva has been selling Saddleback students on the cross-country experience for seven years. His pitch has worked wonders, jump-starting a program that seemed to have died on the vine in the mid-'80s.

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It took a while, but word has spread around campus and beyond. Most of the current team had heard the stories as eighth-graders.

Come be a Roadrunner, Silva said. And so they did.

“The first day I came out and we ran eight miles,” senior Joe Heredia said. “I walked home like a turtle. I was so sore.”

Said senior Rudy Hernandez: “I didn’t consider running . . . but my friends talked me into it. I wanted to be a football player.”

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Said junior Johnny Ochoa: “Cross-country makes me feel like I’m doing something with my life. I’m not just (messing around), roaming the streets.”

With Heredia, Hernandez and Ochoa leading the way, Saddleback begins the season as the top boys’ team in Orange County and the No. 4-ranked Division I team in the state. But it’s not enough for the Roadrunners, who say they will accept nothing less than a State championship in November.

They were close last year, taking home the third-place plaque. As happy as they were, they say a fall in the first 30 yards of the race cost them their edge, otherwise. . . .

“We were pumped up, ready to win,” Heredia said.

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These days, that’s a familiar refrain at Saddleback. Yes, the Roadrunners are winning, but Silva hasn’t slowed his sales pitch. On a recent afternoon, he hounded soccer team hopefuls, whose season doesn’t begin until Dec. 1.

“You like cross-country?” he asked one freshman soccer player. “You’ll like it. Cross-country takes guts.”

The boy nodded and walked toward a group of cross-country runners warming up next to the track. A little extra work paid off in another raw recruit for Silva, 26, a Cal State Fullerton student who always seems to be hustling.

He figures he has to in order to keep the numbers high and the program at the same level.

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“We’re really good now, but we’re trying to hold on and not let it die,” he said. “The kids are harder to convince. I say, ‘Yeah, you’re good, but everyone is out to kick your tail.’ ”

At first, the runners say it’s difficult to believe they can do the workouts. Mastering the mental side of an eight-mile run on a hot, smoggy day in early September is the first step. Racing well and winning come next.

Said Hernandez: “The first day, I was overwhelmed. I said, ‘I have to run all of that? Oh, my gosh. I can’t do this.’ The toughest part was getting started.”

Later, in races, they often surprise themselves.

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“I didn’t know I could be that good,” said Ochoa, who has run a three-mile course at Irvine Park in 15 minutes 13 seconds.

Ochoa found inspiration from Silva, who talked him into coming out for the team, and from Eddie Salinas, a former Saddleback runner.

“Ever since I got into cross-country, I’ve been going for Eddie’s records because he’s an idol here,” said Ochoa, whose 15:13 clocking broke Salinas’ school record by a sophomore.

Heredia also spent time chasing Salinas.

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“Since I was a freshman, I was running with Eddie Salinas,” said Heredia, who has run 15:17. “I didn’t think I’d make it, but I did. I’m still here.”

It’s heartening for Silva to hear. What he wanted most was a place where the kids could learn to have fun while making a name for themselves.

“That smile, that’s the best,” Silva said. “Everybody wants to win--don’t get me wrong--but seeing the kids happy, that tops it all.”

Boys’ Cross-Country

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Top Teams

Corona del Mar, Dana Hills, Esperanza, La Habra, Laguna Hills, Mission Viejo, Saddleback, Santa Ana Valley, Villa Park.

Top Runners

Juan Aruizo (Santa Ana Valley), Shawn Frack (Esperanza), Joe Heredia (Saddleback), Rudy Hernandez (Saddleback), Mike Love (Katella), Chris Lynch (Laguna Hills), Jeff Lynn (Mission Viejo), James Mahon (La Habra), Johnny Ochoa (Saddleback), Mario Vela (Saddleback).

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Important Dates

Oct. 19, Mt. San Antonio College Invitational; Oct. 26, Orange County Championships; Nov. 16, Southern Section preliminaries; Nov. 23, Southern Section finals; Nov. 30, CIF State finals.

Notes

Saddleback is trying for a second consecutive Southern Section championship and a third consecutive Sea View League title. The Roadrunners swept league titles at each division last year. The next step for Saddleback, ranked No. 4 in the State preseason poll, figures to be a State Division I championship. Last year, Ochoa ran 15 minutes 13 seconds to break Eddie Salinas’ school record for sophomores. Frack had a 3,200-meter best of 9:29.42 and figures to lead Esperanza in a tough Empire League duel with Katella and Love, seventh at the Division II finals. La Habra, a North county force, is led by the Mahon brothers--James, Brendon and Robert.

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Girls’ Cross-Country

Top Teams

Canyon, Corona del Mar, Costa Mesa, Dana Hills, Edison, El Modena, Foothill, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Hills, Orange Lutheran, Santa Margarita, Tustin, University, Valencia, Woodbridge.

Top Runners

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Tanja Brix (University), Kristina Dahlberg (El Modena), Katy Eklof (Costa Mesa), Laura Flatauer (Canyon), Carrie Garritson (Sunny Hills), Jennifer Gillis (Irvine), Kay Nekota (Woodbridge), Allyson Myers (Foothill), Kim Nelson (Canyon), Amber Parkinson (Orange Lutheran), Kelly Roda (Irvine), Shelley Taylor (Edison).

Important Dates

Oct. 19, Mt. San Antonio College Invitational; Oct. 26, Orange County Championships; Nov. 16, Southern Section preliminaries; Nov. 23, Southern Section finals; Nov. 30, CIF State finals.

Notes

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Roda and Gillis give Irvine a strong one-two punch and a No. 3 State preseason ranking in Division I. Roda is a sub-11-minute two-miler, and Gillis has run 800 meters in 2:14.45. The best individuals are, in no particular order, Garritson, Parkinson and Taylor. Garritson and Parkinson dueled for county supremacy in the State track meet’s 3,200 last spring with Parkinson winning, 10:38.80 to 10:39.17. Taylor had the nation’s fastest 1,600-meter mark for much of the past track season.


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