While it's not uncommon for runners to be sidelined by leg problems, Christy Villa had trouble with her jaw.
"I had an overbite that needed to be fixed," said Villa, a UC Irvine distance runner. "They could only do it with surgery . . . My upper jaw was too long. That was keeping my lower jaw from closing all the way normal. If you looked at me, you couldn't tell.
"I like sandwiches, but I couldn't just bite into them. I'd have to cut them, and shove all the food back to my molars to chew. They say I had a pacifier for too long when I was a kid."
Villa said she coordinated the surgery with the time off Irvine runners usually have after the track season. She had surgery the last week of June.
"I kept running up until surgery," she said. "After that, I laid off three or four weeks."
During that time, she was on a liquid diet. "Ensure, Citrical," she said. "I can't even look at that stuff now."
That evolved into a "non-chewing diet" consisting of pasta, yogurt and the like. She lost 10 pounds from her 5-foot-4, 115-pound frame. She has since gained some of the weight back, and is running as well as she has her entire career. Two weeks ago, she finished third at the Aztec Invitational in San Diego's Balboa Park. The week before, she finished third at the UCI/Asics Invitational.
"I'm running at a whole new level," said Villa, a junior. "My splits are all faster. I go out and block everything out and run as hard as I can and let the rest take care of itself."
Cross-country Coach Vince O'Boyle attributes much of Villa's success this fall to a former Anteater runner.
"Last year, she trained with Christie Engesser and I think that really helped her mature workout- and performance-wise," O'Boyle said.
"[Engesser] would have to go later on Wednesdays because she had a late class," Villa said. "And I offered to go with her so she'd have someone to run with. Plus, I really wanted to be around her to soak up her knowledge when it comes to practice and racing. She goes out and gets down to business. She goes out there and pushes it, and it was real positive for me to be around."
Engesser graduated from Ocean View High and attended Oregon before transferring to UCI. She graduated last year, but Villa still sees her occasionally; Engesser is engaged to Ben Cesar, an Anteater assistant track coach.
Villa, who graduated from Escondido San Pasqual High, was a redshirt her freshman year.
"That was a combination of not running much the summer after I graduated from high school, so I wasn't going to be able to contribute much to the team," she said. "We had a deep team. I wasn't going to be able to make that much of an impact. Also, I didn't get cleared by the [NCAA] clearinghouse until halfway through the season."
Villa, who also runs the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 for the track team, is looking forward to contributing this fall. However, the English major missed last weekend's meet in Santa Barbara because she took the Law School Admissions Test. But she doesn't deserve too much time off.
"It was good this summer," she said. "I did nothing. I suddenly had no school, no work. I came back totally refreshed."
Robert Frichtel, a junior on the men's cross-country team, was sixth at the UC Santa Barbara five-way meet last weekend, finishing in a personal-best 25 minutes 45 seconds over the 8,000-meter course. It was more than 20 seconds better than his previous best.
The secret to his recent success was his summer workouts. It was an unusual 16-mile training course, with the half-way point being O'Boyle's house.
"They would stop by every Sunday, right when I sat down to dinner," O'Boyle said.
It didn't do them any good. They didn't even get a glass of water.
"They know where the hose is," O'Boyle said.
The UC Irvine men's basketball game Feb. 11 at Utah State will be televised by ESPN, as will the Big West Championship's title game March 7 in Reno. The conference will participate in four ESPN and two ESPN2 games during the 1998-99 season.
The women's soccer team won two games over the weekend, including a 2-1 victory at North Texas. The Anteaters' reward was to be dropped one place in the West Region poll, going from sixth to seventh. Stanford, which tied Santa Clara, the top-ranked team in the region, last week leapfrogged Irvine.
The Anteaters (8-0-1) face UCLA, ranked fifth in the poll, Wednesday.
"UCLA is an awesome team," Coach Marine Cano said. "If we win that, no one can say jack."
The men's tennis team received some help from abroad this week when Stefan Pongratz enrolled. Pongratz, who is from Sweden, was 34-2 at Ventura College last season. He came to the United States so he could play tennis while attending college--Pongratz said schools in Sweden do not have athletic programs.
"I figure I'm never going to beat Pete Sampras," Pongratz said. "So I wanted to combine my tennis with an education."
Megan Stafford, a junior point guard on the women's basketball team, has been cleared to play after being slowed by a stress fracture in her left foot at the end of last season.
The injury limited her to 17 minutes in Irvine's 70-65 loss to Idaho in the Big West Conference tournament's first round. Stafford averaged 12.2 points and 4.9 assists and was named second-team All-Big West.
Times staff writer Chris Foster contributed to this story.