Vaqueros seeking top three

NORTHEAST GLENDALE — Perhaps overshadowed by the glory and grandeur of their female counterparts, the Glendale Community College men's cross-country team rather quietly turned in an outstanding 2009 campaign.

But just like the school's women's team, a great deal of fresh talent will have to rise to the top if a repeat performance is to be had.

"We've got a chance to be top three," Vaqueros men's and women's cross-country Coach Eddie Lopez said. "We've got a lot of speed with the guys, we just gotta get stronger."

Led by Frankie Quijada and Jonathan Alpizar last season, the Vaqueros repeated as Western State Conference champions before taking third at both the Southern California and state championships.

Lopez, who coached the men's team to state titles in 1995 and '98, believes all the same placements are within the grasps of the fleet feet of his current group of Vaqueros, but success will only come with the addition of strength and learning how to compete.

"They have speed, endurance, they just have to learn how to race," Lopez said.

Only two runners from last year's top five will return. Captain Rico Gutierrez comes back as the top returner, but fellow sophomore Ricky Avila has come on as the team's top runner.

In the grand scheme of all things team, though, Gutierrez is hardly flustered about being a formidable No. 2 for the time being.

"All that matters is that I help the team," Gutierrez said.

Helping the team in many ways is acclimating them to junior college cross-country, as there are only four sophomores, including Gutierrez and Avila, on the 11-runner squad.

"We've got talent, we're just not as deep as the women," Lopez said.

Likely working his way into the top three will be sophomore Miguel Flores, who ran at Birmingham High along with Gutierrez. Crescenta Valley High grad Neil Jones has also shown some promise over the summer.

Avila, for one, is encouraged by the improvement of the freshman class.

"They're doing pretty well so far," Avila said.

In particular, Lopez points to Michael Noris of Canyon High and Alexander Nelson of Saugus High.

The latter is the son of Jeff Nelson, who is a Glendale Community College Hall of Famer twice over. Having set a national high school record in the two-mile at Burbank High that stood from 1978 to 2008, the elder Nelson then went on to set three school track records at GCC that still stand, while taking part in a state title win with the 1980 men's cross-country team, which he was inducted into the school's hall of fame as a part of along with being inducted as an individual.

While the lofty marks set by Jeff Nelson clearly add to the GCC running tradition, this group of Vaqueros is trying to maintain the program's status as one of the best in the state.

"We're still aiming for top three in state," Avila said.

To do that, they must overcome a great deal of change from last season to this one.

"It's a big difference from this year to last," Gutierrez said.

Added Avila: "It's different going from freshmen to sophomores and trying to be the role models."

Avila and Gutierrez will begin their task of leading the Vaqueros back to prominence on Saturday at the Fullerton Invitational before going for conference glory on Oct. 26 and then hopefully moving on to Southern California and state gain in November.

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