Jose Herrera was the new kid on the block four years ago, new to the neighborhood and new to the country. Young and impressionable, it didn't take long for Herrera to seek the company of his peers. Before long he was running with a fast crowd.
"I met Isaac Gallardo and Edgar Lopez in junior high, shortly after I moved from Mexico," Herrera said. "I couldn't keep up with them at first, but now they can't keep up with me."
Gallardo and Lopez had urged Herrera to try distance running shortly after they met. They had seen Herrera in action and could tell he had the potential to be something special. Give it a try, they said. You could be good someday.
Now teammates at Loara, Gallardo and Lopez aren't the only runners trying to catch up with Herrera. Nearly every other high school cross-country runner in Orange County has been chasing him since he came onto the scene late last season.
Herrera surprised many when he won the Empire League individual title over Katella sophomore Danny Mejia, who had defeated Herrera in an earlier dual meet. He then ran 15 minutes 18 seconds to finish second at the Southern Section Division II preliminaries, and was fourth (15:41) at the section finals a week later.
Herrera then capped his dynamic junior season by finishing ninth (15:46) at the Division II state championships. Only Mission Viejo senior Mark Gleason finished higher than Herrera among county runners in that division.
"I think his success really began last summer," Loara Coach Dave Smith said. "He had a little success in track as a sophomore, but I told him in order to really improve he needed to work the entire summer."
Herrera's hard work continued to pay off during the 1998 track and field season. He finished second to Gleason in the 3,200 at the Orange County and Division II championships, then became the only county runner to qualify for the event at the state finals, where he placed seventh.
"He's very competitive when he runs and we've had to spend a lot of time working with his pacing," Smith said. "As a sophomore he just ran hard from the start, real hard."
Herrera said he still prefers to employ a front-running strategy in longer races, but is wise to leave something in the tank for the stretch run.
"I want to win all the races that I can," Herrera said. "Before I was just running for medals, now I want something more, something big."
This summer Herrera and his teammates have been running five to six miles each training session, an average of 30 miles a week. It's the hardest Herrera has ever trained and he hopes the effort pays off.
"Last year we ran some, but not like this summer," Herrera said. "We have two coaches and they help us a lot. Our training this summer is definitely better than the last."
Herrera also spent 25 to 30 hours a week working at an Anaheim fast-food restaurant this summer. During the season he'll continue to work Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons. He realizes he'll probably get to bed a lot later than some of his competitors the night before weekend meets, but it's the only way to keep money in his pocket.
"My parents told me I have to work if I need extra money," Herrera said. "Sometimes I don't get much sleep, but I have to be there."
Herrera is expected to get plenty of support from his Loara teammates this season. In addition to Gallardo and Lopez, four other runners return from last season's team.
"I think we're going to have one of the best teams in a while," Smith said. "Our biggest goal this season is to be one of the 12 teams in the invitational race at the Orange County Championships."