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JUST PREPS : A Higher Goal : The Runners of Belmont High Have Dominated City Cross-Country, but Now Their Rallying Cry Calls for State Glory

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It’s as if there’s a rope around them, tying together the runners on the Belmont High boys’ cross-country team.

It can’t be seen or touched, but sensed. It is the aura that surrounds the seven, some on the verge of manhood, others still rubbing their eyes at the world.

It has become their identity, their life, from the practices after school, to the meets, to the Saturdays at Elysian Park making carne asada and laughing after an early-morning run.

“They are a very close group,” Belmont Coach Alex Carmona said. “Always together.”

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On Saturday in Fresno, the seven, as thick as thieves, will try to pull off the greatest of heists: a top-five finish in the state cross-country meet.

“They say that a city team can’t do well in state, that a team from Los Angeles can’t compete at that level,” Carmona said. “Well, our focus all season has been to show them differently.”

Belmont’s team, made up of brothers Manuel and Jorge Lopez, seniors George Lopez, Luis Bejar, Mateo Mateo and Jose Lopez, and freshman Henry Briseno, is united in its optimism and its endeavor.

They won last Saturday’s City Section meet at Pierce College and are part of a string of Belmont teams that have won 10 of the last 13 city championships. But matching those championships has been the school’s failure at the next level.

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Only one top-10 finish in the state meet. No great individual performances since Roman Gomez in the early ‘80s. Nothing but city championship trophies and a rising sense of humility.

“It has always been stressed that the city championship is the final goal, that anything after that is like a vacation, and that was how we always looked at Fresno--as a vacation,” Carmona said.

But the emphasis has changed, and now, as they prepare for Saturday’s meet, there is a sense of greater purpose.

“To show them what we are about,” Briseno said. “To earn respect for the schools in L.A.”

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The state meet was put on the schedule handed out at the start of the season, and at a preseason meeting the seven were challenged by Carmona and fellow Coach Everardo Silva to redefine their goals.

“They told us that it was OK to think about more than just being best in the city,” Manuel Lopez said.

That has been their stance all season, and it was never more evident than in the week leading up to the city finals. Silva and Carmona trained them for the flat course at Fresno instead of the hills at Pierce.

The coaches hoped talent alone would help them finish first or second in the city and qualify for the state meet.

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It did.

Despite trailing Garfield, 71-70, at the midway point, according to the coaches’ tally, Belmont finished strong and won, 50-72.

The first thing the runners did after winning was slip on the bandannas they had bought at the start of the season. They resemble the Mexican flag--green, red and white, with a crest in the middle.

A full-size flag waves next to a Belmont banner at all meets, and those two symbols are as important to the team as the runners themselves.

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“We are proud of where we come from. That is our heritage,” Jorge Lopez said. “It is what we are about--just like our running.”

Before the city meet, the team lobbied school officials to wear the bandannas during the race. The request was denied because they were not part of the school uniform.

The coaches understood.

“Most of them are first-generation Latinos and they bring humbleness and respect to the team,” Carmona said.

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And they bring a family atmosphere in which brothers look out for brothers.

When George Lopez’s grades were slipping, members of both the boys’ and girls’ teams talked to his teachers to see what could be done to raise his marks.

As the only freshman on the team, Briseno gets a great deal of ribbing. But he also has six mentors who are eager to help him.

“They were the ones who convinced me to go out for the sport and kept after me to keep improving,” he said.

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The school has more than 4,000 students, and as recently as two years ago had more than 120 runners try out for the varsity teams. This year, only 30 tried out.

But even with the low turnout, Belmont’s boys ranked No. 4 in the City Section, according to preseason polls. It was a credit to the school’s history in the city, but also the dedication of the athletes.

In the summer, the coaches organize the 500-mile club, which is a plan the runners can follow to get ready for the season. For the varsity runners, it is a bible during the off-season months, and they push its importance to the younger runners.

The Belmont boys’ junior varsity has won 15 consecutive city titles, and as it showed in last Saturday’s runaway victory, it is about 500 miles ahead of the other city schools at that level.

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“We tell them that one day it is going to be them,” Manuel Lopez said. “And they better be ready.”

Some of the runners on this year’s squad were approached in junior high by varsity runners who heard they had talent.

Also, alumni who remain in the area work with the athletes in the summer or on weekends, when coaches can’t because of city rules.

The coaches, Carmona and Silva, were part of a city championship team in 1981 and have returned, in part, to see that the success continues.

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Carmona, who is also an English teacher, gives presentations to classes, stressing the importance of athletics and pushing his sport in particular.

And once the kids come out, the coaches keep them interested. Carmona is like their father, making certain his seniors have applied to four-year colleges. Silva is like their uncle, with an eye for mischief, leading bolitas , in which the entire team piles on the runner who is least suspecting.

“I remember when I first came here and how I struggled with the language and wasn’t able to meet people easily,” Carmona said. “Cross-country here is a big opportunity because it allows the opportunity to meet people and to help people.”

After the boys’ team had won the City title, Carmona huddled with his runners. The frosh-soph squad, the junior varsity, the girls’ team and the young men who will be running in Fresno drew together around their coach.

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Even though the boys’ team, the pride of Belmont, had won, Carmona was concerned that some of his runners would be disappointed with their finish. He demanded they put those thoughts aside.

“We gambled today,” he said, yelling over the awards presentation taking place a few yards away, “and it paid off. We didn’t train for this course. We trained for Fresno, and we still won.

“That is what I want you to think about--Fresno. That is what is important--Fresno. That is our goal--Fresno.”

The runners began to chant “Fresno,” closing their circle even tighter, their goal only a few strides away.

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