Pirates pursuing perfection in cross country

In the battle against complacency along the 5,000-kilometer cross country trail, the competition is not the sole buffer. There is, of course, also the matter of the stopwatch, its constant ticking a relentless measure of individual progress.

And, fortunately, for the defending state champion Orange Coast College women's team, there is also the matter of perfection, a perfect score produced by placing all five scoring runners atop the rest of the field.

It is this perfect score, the loftiest of all motivational measures, that continues to drive Coach Marco Ochoa's Pirates, who thus far this season are, quite frankly, running opponents into the ground.

"We kind of want to get that perfect score at state," said sophomore Leanne Allen, who along with fellow sophomore Karen Silvas has formed the Pirates' one-two punch the last two seasons.

"It's a longshot, but it's not impossible," Silvas said of the one-through-five individual finish at the Nov. 23 state meet that is a tangible objective for a squad that routinely reels in its goals.

OCC, with four of its top seven back from last season, when it captured the program's 15th state crown but its first since 2006, has won all three of the invitationals in which it has competed in 2013. All three times, the second-place team more than doubled the Pirates' team score (the lower the score the better).

At the Fresno Invitational on Sept. 7 at Woodward Park, the annual site of the state meet, OCC runners placed second (Allen), fourth (Silvas), eighth (freshman Krista Son), ninth (sophomore Raeanne Cortez) and 13th (sophomore Guadalupe Cantoran), for a team total of 36. The gap of just more than 57 seconds between the No. 1 runner (Allen's 18 minutes, 41.75 seconds) and the No. 5 runner (Cortez's 19:39.69) was its best showing at any invitational. Runner-up Mt. San Antonio had 105 team points that day.

At the 30-team Southern California Preview meet last week in Santa Clarita, Silvas finished first (19:10.83), Allen third, Cantoran 10th, Cortez 11th and Son 16th (20:20.8) to help compile 40 points, 59 fewer than second-place Glendale.

Allen was fifth, Silva sixth, with the remaining aforementioned three Pirates placing 13th, 14th and 17th in the season-opening Mark Covert Classic in Fullerton Aug. 31, in which OCC's team score of 25 provided a 35-point cushion on runner-up Concordia.

"We haven't talked about [the perfect score], said Ochoa, who is bidding for his seventh state crown in his 12th season at the helm, "but we stress running as a team and packing it up. Our goal is always to run under a one-minute [differential] for our top five."

Talent and experience are definite pluses this season for the Pirates, who return to action Oct. 5 at the Triton Invitational at UC San Diego. But Ochoa's precise workout regimen — based on years of trial and error, his own running under legendary coach Joe Vigil at Adams State University in Colorado, and his extensive study of exercise physiology and kinesiology, has also helped his runners consistently gain substantial improvement.

Additionally, his emphasis on improvement over winning helps his runners appreciate the understated style with which he nudges them along the road to achievement.

"Usually coaches baby you, but [Ochoa] tells you what you need to hear," Allen, 16th at last year's state meet, said. "He doesn't sugar-coat anything. I've never really had a coach like him. I love him, honestly. He helps me out a lot, because he pushes me when I need to be pushed."

Silvas, eighth at the 2012 state meet to earn All-American recognition, also had praise for Ochoa, who ran at Anaheim High and Santa Ana College before Adams State.

"He's awesome," Silvas said of Ochoa, who is assisted with the OCC men's and women's programs by longtime track and field coach John Knox, as well as Jeff Davis. "He's an amazing coach, an amazing trainer, and an amazing friend. He knows what to do with you and he knows how to get you there with time. He does not baby us at all. It works, because that's how he gets results."

Ochoa, whose previous 11 OCC teams have four runner-up finishes and have never finished worse than fourth at the state meet, said his simplistic approach to training is based on the principle of adaptation.

"I believe adaptation takes place over three to four weeks," Ochoa, a Costa Mesa resident, said. "If you keep changing things in training, there is no adaptation. "So, we do things exactly the same for three weeks at a time, then change. We make it different in terms of how we prescribe intensity with which they run those workouts to improve and adapt to those workouts.

"I think we've done a good job of creating a philosophy and setting our standards. Our emphasis is on doing the best you can do, as an individual and as a team ... Just because you win a race, doesn't mean you did a good job, if you have the potential to do much greater."

There may always be potential to do better, but Ochoa and his runners just might settle for perfection.

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