When her 2010 sophomore track and field season with Glendale Community College ended with a grand double-championship curtain call on the state-meet stage, Karen Rosas could have jogged off into the sunset this summer having scripted the perfect epilogue to her Vaquero career.
Already eligible to transfer to a four-year college, and with interest from several such institutions floating her way after winning the 5,000- and 10,000-meter events at the California Community College Athletic Assn. Track and Field Championships on May 20-21, Rosas seemingly didn't need to come back to GCC for one last cross-country season in the fall.
"I could have easily gone," says Rosas, who is strongly leaning toward continuing her college running career at Adams State in Southern Colorado after completing the fall semester at Glendale, "but, I think I feel more happy being here and being able to do this now.
"I said I think I want to be running with these girls [at Glendale]. …And, if we could be state champions, that would be awesome."
So far, that dream is looking more and more like a distinct reality, as the Vaqueros have easily won their first five races of the season and are ranked No. 1 in the Southern California coaches' poll with Rosas leading the way.
"I'm really glad she ended up deciding to stay for another year because she knows the program here at Glendale, she's been through it before," Rosas' teammate Alyssa Selve says. "Even though she was [ready] to move on, it's really good to have someone that understands [Vaqueros track and cross-country] Coach [Eddie] Lopez' training and has been through it. She's been a real great leader in helping us, really motivating everyone to get that state title.
"She saw the pain that we went through last year when we missed it."
Rosas, who was Glendale college's third-best runner (seventh in 18 minutes 23 seconds) at the 2009 California Community College Cross Country Championships, redshirted as a result of ineligibility during the fall season of 2010. She likely would have contended for the top spot on a team that just missed defending its championship when it finished runner-up at state behind San Diego Southwestern.
"Even when I wasn't representing the team, they were still very supportive toward me," Rosas says. "I'm never going to forget that."
As hard as it was for her to spend that season on the outside looking in, Rosas felt invigorated by her return for the 2010 track season, in which she also captured the Southern California title in the 5K and Western State Conference championships in both the 5K and 10K and was a multiple-time All-American.
"I think I owe a lot to Coach Lopez and the program here at GCC," Rosas says. "I felt like when I came back for track, it was just an awesome experience just to be back and to be able to represent Glendale as an institution while I was running, and to be a state champion, I felt even more proud."
Rosas says she felt she had unfinished business on the courses of the California Community College circuit, as well as a debt of gratitude to repay the Vaqueros program for helping her become a state champion in track.
Midway through the cross-country season, Rosas is repaying the program handsomely. She's crossed the finish line first in four of the five events she's raced and, more importantly, according to Lopez, is focusing on leading the Vaqueros to team success above all else.
"We have a lot of team players on the team, but she's given up all her individual accomplishments this year for the team," Lopez says. "Not that she hasn't raced, but she's run for the team first and hers comes second.
"She's sacrificed a lot in the races because she could go out there and force up the pace in the first mile to 5:20 and that will break almost everyone on the field. But we have her out there just to keep our top three girls going and then our other girls are able to keep in contact. When she races, she actually will slow the race down because no one's going to challenge her, they all follow her."
Rosas has tasted victory at the Fresno Invitational (18:30) on Sept. 10, the Orange Coast Classic (18:05.47) on Sept. 17, the Western State Conference Preview meet (20:22.35) on Oct. 7 and the Mt. SAC Invitational (18:09) on Friday.
Surprisingly, Rosas says being the front-runner every week was something that threw her off at first when making her return to cross-country.
"Now I'm the person they are chasing, I'm not really chasing anyone," Rosas says. "I've always been motivated by the fact that I wasn't the front-runner or the No. 1 runner before. I was looking forward to getting closer to the person in front of me. This year I don't have that."
Instead Rosas draws motivation from the ultimate goal of becoming a state champion in cross-country, not looking past any preceding meet, but realizing they all bring her and the Vaqueros one step closer to the final objective.
"The reason she stayed is not [for] individual [reasons], but she wanted the team to do better," Lopez says. "She could have left and gone to Adams State, but she wanted to stay and help the team win the state championship, that's the bottom line.
"I also feel that she's one of the best runners in the state right now, if not the best, so she also has a chance to win an individual title. It's a fine line, but her biggest goal is for the team to win."