On Their Marks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Mario Bassani didn't keep a lid on his talent this season. He wasn't about to be silenced by the competition.

Bassani, an Irvine High senior, was quick to nominate himself as the best track and field athlete in the county this spring, then went about proving it.

Bassani was the only boy from the county to qualify for the state finals in two events. He ran some of the county's best times in years in the 400 meters and also ranks among the all-time fastest in the 200.

He talked the talk, then ran the races. Now, he is The Times' Orange County boys' track and field athlete of the year.

"Some of his little comments got to people," Santa Margarita sprinter Scott Langford said. "But I liked it. As long as he can back it up, he can talk as much as he wants."

Bassani's best time in the 400 of 47.01 seconds, achieved while winning the event at the Masters meet on May 25, was third-best in county history and the fastest since 1985. It's also the best time in the state this season.

"I think the high point for me was Masters," Bassani said. "I was on top of the world."

Bassani's county-leading time of 21.26 in the 200 at the Division I section finals is fourth on the all-time county list.

Bassani said his success and confidence is a byproduct of the hard work and preparation he put into each race. There was a time a few years ago, he says, when wasn't even the fastest kid on his block.

He had success when he started in track, placing among the top three in the state as a 10-year-old in the 100 meters. But after a two-year layoff, when Bassani picked up the sport again in junior high, he didn't experience the same success.

"I was horrible," he remembers.

In actuality, Bassani was just a late bloomer among his peers.

Trabuco Hills junior Matt Bruno, who won Masters and finished third in state in the 100, competed with Bassani in junior high. He remembers the feeling of being overshadowed by more developed teammates.

"We were still just kids," Bruno said. "The other people on our team were men."

Still close friends, Bruno has closely followed Bassani's progress.

"He just started developing," Bruno said. "And every year his times have come down."

After Bassani's junior season ended with a second-place finish in the 400 at the Division II section finals, he began preparing for his senior year. Bassani set lofty goals for himself and wasn't afraid to share them with his competitors.

"If you let down for a moment, then someone will own you," Bassani said. "To be the best you have to act like the best. At all times."

Bruno knew what Bassani was trying to accomplish with his brash talk. Bruno has been to enough starting lines to know the type of attitude it takes to be successful in the sprints.

"You have to have that competitive spirit," Bruno said. "All the great sprinters think the same way."

Bassani began his senior season by setting a meet record in the 400 at the Irvine Invitational, running the county's fastest time in five years. He set another meet record in the event at the Trabuco Hills Invitational, then finished third at the prestigious Arcadia Invitational. It was one of the few times this season he didn't lower his personal best.

It was during this stretch of the season that Bassani quietly revealed he had been suffering an abdominal strain. After Arcadia, he didn't compete again until the Sea View League finals nearly four weeks later.

Bassani returned to form at the section finals, winning a Division I title in the 400 and finishing second in the 200. Bassani won the 400 in 47.40, the fastest time by a county runner since 1987 and the fastest in any division that day. He also produced his personal best in the 200.

During Bassani's postseason run, he also signed with UCLA, another dream come true.

"Everything has just come together," Bassani said. "I never thought I'd be in the position to say, 'I'm going to UCLA for track.' When I signed, I just said, 'Wow, I'm really doing this.' "

Bassani said he expects to continue running the 200 and 400 in college. He would like to run more 100s, but wouldn't be surprised if he's asked to stretch out to 800 meters at some point.

"We'll have to talk about that," Bassani said.

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