Taylor Has Been to Arkansas and Back : Running: A trip home made her realize she needed to stick around.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's nothing like Christmas in Southern California. And New Year's is pretty nice, too. Come to think of it Jan. 28, June 28, Aug. 28 and Sept. 28 aren't half-bad, either.

Shelley Taylor knew all that when she left Edison High for the University of Arkansas, but it took a trip home over Christmas break 1993-94 to reinforce her opinion.

The Arkansas campus, the people in Fayetteville and her teammates in cross-country and track were friendly enough.

It even seemed like home.

But something wasn't quite right and it took that trip to her real home to realize what she was missing. Her parents noticed something amiss, and soon enough Taylor told them:

"Mom, Dad, I can't go back."

So she didn't, deciding in a flash to transfer to UCLA. She couldn't be happier now. Running is fun again.

There was pressure at Arkansas. There was extraordinary competition. Every time Taylor turned around, she seemed to be running with another former high school state champion or NCAA All-American.

Taylor, who won State CIF cross-country and track titles as a senior at Edison, ran well as a freshman at Arkansas, placing 13th in the NCAA championship cross-country meet and seventh in the NCAA 5,000 track final.

As a sophomore, she improved to ninth at the NCAA cross-country meet.

Looking back, she's surprised she and others at Arkansas managed to run as well as they did.

"I wasn't happy with the program," Taylor said. "It wasn't what I wanted out of college. I wanted more than to just run well. Running is not everything.

"I like cross-country because it's so individual, but the team is so important too. At Arkansas we had a great team. It just wasn't as close as it should have been. Maybe because there was so much pressure it made it difficult on everybody."

At UCLA, it's easy to slip into the background because the Los Angeles sports market is so huge. If the Bruins don't win the women's Pacific 10 cross-country title--and they're not expected to--nobody bats an eyelash.

Eric Peterson, in his first season as UCLA coach, has a talented team, but hardly anyone around the Westwood campus would call the Bruins a NCAA championship-caliber team.

And that's OK with Taylor.

After informing her parents that she didn't want to return to Arkansas, which won a recruiting battle for Taylor in 1992, they told her to take her time picking her next move. Really, only UCLA entered her mind.

Ten weeks passed before Taylor entered UCLA for the spring quarter. She wasn't going to run competitively on the Bruin track team, so that gave her added time to adjust to her new surroundings.

"At that point I needed it," she said. "I had been through the wringer."

She tried her hand at coaching, helping out the distance runners at Edison for a while. She ran, but there wasn't the urgency she had left behind at Arkansas. If she missed a day or two or slowed to a crawl on her favorite route, there was no reason to fret.

What's more, this was the first time she could dive headlong into her major--English.

When she resumed difficult workouts last month, Taylor found herself surrounded by familiar, friendly faces. It looked like the starting line of so many races Taylor had run in high school.

There was Karen Hecox from West Covina South Hills, Anna Delgado from Calexico, Erica Sumi from Long Beach Wilson and Susannah Thrasher from Villa Park.

Now, this was more like it. This was starting to feel comfortable.

"It just wasn't the right atmosphere at Arkansas," Taylor said. "I liked the people on the team. It was just too intense. It wasn't worth all the sacrifice. I'm glad I realized that when I did."

Hecox, a senior, and Taylor, a junior, form one of the best one-two combinations on the West Coast. So far, Hecox is the clear-cut No. 1 runner on the team, according to Taylor. That's OK, too.

Taylor says she's content. After all, Hecox is a pretty fair runner, the first woman from UCLA to win Pac-10 and NCAA District 8 titles in the same year. She finished 10th at the '93 NCAA meet, just a step behind Taylor.

Whether they can lift UCLA to a better finish than last season's third-place showing at the Pac-10 meet remains to be seen. The first serious meet of the season is the Stanford Invitational Saturday.

So far, Taylor has run well. She won a season-opening meet against Cal Poly Pomona and a UCLA alumni team and placed second at last week's Aztec Invitational at San Diego's Balboa Park. The Bruins won both meets.

Slowly but surely, UCLA is beginning to feel more like home.

"I miss a few things from Arkansas," she said. "I miss the change of the seasons. (But) it's so fortunate how it worked out. You pick a school coming out of high school and you feel a lot of loyalty. I still feel loyal (to Arkansas). It's been a tough adjustment period, but everyone here has been so great.

"UCLA is close to home, but not too close. It's just really perfect."

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