Ortega hopes to lead Tornillo back to the medal podium

State Championship Previews

Today: Tornillo boys.

Sunday: San Elizario boys.

Monday: Hanks boys.

Tuesday: Eastwood boys.

Wednesday: Franklin girls.

Thursday: Americas boys.

Friday: Individual qualifiers. Class 6A – Americas senior Mariana Guzman; Montwood junior Karyme Garcia, Coronado senior Nick Gonzalez and freshman Kyra Walker and Franklin senior Fernie Morales, Franklin. Class 5A – Jefferson sophomore Crystal Peterson and junior Melody Tsuitsumi; Lauren Walls, sophomore, Eastwood; Eastlake sophomore Israel David and Angel Contreras, senior, Chapin. Class 4A- Mt. View junior  Kayhla Talavera, senior Nicole Estrada and junior Joshua Gonzalez and Karina Gallegos, junior, San Elizario. Class 3A – Freshman, Kylene Elias, Tornillo.

Make Plans

What: UIL State Cross Country Championship.

When:  Saturday Nov. 9. All times (CST): Girls Class 3A, 10:50 a.m.; Boys Class 3A, 11:20 a.m.; Girls Class 4A, noon;  Boys Class 4A, 12:30 p.m.; Girls Class 5A, 1:10 p.m.; Boys Class 5A, 1:50 p.m.; Girls Class 6A, 2:30 p.m.; Boys Class 6A, 3:10 p.m.

Where:  Old Settlers Park in Round Rock.

At Stake: State team and individual titles.

Tornillo is back for yet another crack at a Class 3A cross country state medal. This will be the 10th time in 11 years the Coyotes have advanced to the state meet.

Tornillo senior Ofir Ortega vividly recalls standing on the medal podium at Old Settler’s Park in Round Rock in 2016 with a silver medal draped around his neck.

It was his freshman year and he was a late season call up to the varsity.

“It was awesome and exciting to be on the podium and being on the second best team in the state in 3A, but I didn’t really feel important because I didn’t contributed much,” he said. “I was the seventh man on the team and I finished somewhere in the 80s.”

He finished in 82nd place in 17:55.85.

Ortega’s sophomore year was much better. The team again finished second behind Class 3A power Lulling but he was 19th, fourth on the team in 16:45.79.

“I was proud of myself, I did my part in that race,” he said. “I went there and focused and ran a pretty good time. I felt that I contributed this time.”

His junior year was a step back, he finished 23rd in 16:53.77 and the team ended up in seventh place.

Next Saturday, Ortega will be competing in his fourth UIL State Cross Country Championship, the team’s 10th in 11 years.

“I feel really strong this year,” he said. “My goal is to win the race or finish in the top three. Team wise, the goal is to get back on the podium.”

That task could prove more daunting than it has in the past. Only three runners – Ortega, Michael Maney and Bryan Garcia- have state-race experience.

“I try to keep them motivated,” Ortega said. “At practice, I try to push them and cheer for them each day. Hopefully we can do something really special at state.”

Ofir Ortega
Tornillo senior Ofir Ortega won the Class 3A Division of the Lubbock Invitational in 16:04.5.

Jesse Garcia, who has been a coach at Tornillo since 2008, is proud of the way Ortega has progressed into the unquestioned team leader.

“I moved him his freshman year from JV to varsity,” Garcia said. “He was the slowest kid on the team but he has worked hard ever since and here he is with a shot to win the individual title.”

He grew up, right in front of Garcia’s eyes.

“He has a lot of love for his teammates and he is real humble and down to earth,” he said. “I saw the way he started from the beginning, nobody knew who he was. After a while, he made a name for himself and came on to the stage.”

Garcia said he has seen gradual improvement with this year’s edition of Tornillo runners.

“Going back the Eastwood race (in August) and seeing those results, we’ve come a long way,” he said. “Our sixth man started at a 29-minute 5K and now he is at 21-something. It’s been a good year in terms of growing young kids so hopefully we can get to the podium, and if we don’t, we’re going to learn and hold our heads high.”

State appearances for Tornillo are the norm and pretty much expected.

“Every summer we come into the season with a mindset that we will try to be a contender and get back to the state championship,” Garcia said. “This year felt a lot like 2008. In 2008 I didn’t have anybody with regional experience. This year, I had four guys who didn’t have regional-race experience.”

Bryan Guzman, Angel Torres and Eric Fuentes are new to the championship season, never racing at regionals until this year.

And the team will only race with six runners after its seventh runner left the team right before regionals.

“I told the boys if we make it to state, great,” Garcia said. “We might not win regionals but we’re going to give them hell and we’ll be close. And sure enough, we lost by a point.”

Ortega won the region in 16:06.00, propelling the Coyotes to a second-place regional finish with 85 points. Presidio won the event by one point.

“I have kids who started the season running 20s and now they are almost breaking 17,” Garcia said. “The boys are definitely trying to close the gap with Ofir. Three weeks ago in Lubbock, we had a three-minute gap. It wasn’t very good, and we still managed to get third place. At regionals, we managed to get the second fastest gap which was 1 minute and 13 seconds, that was a huge gain for us.”

Garcia said he likes the makeup of this team.

“I have some warriors this year,” he said. “They are not an all-star group that has a lot of experience but they are beginning to believe in themselves and that’s the scary part, we are becoming a team that believes; we could be hard to deal with.”