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.”


San Eli building a running culture in the Cotton Valley; seeks 5th straight state title

The San Elizario boys are seeking it’s fifth consecutive Class 4A State Championship. The boys have won five straight invitationals to start the season, with sophomore Edwin Gomez (far left) winning four of five meets.

The San Elizario boy’s cross country team is still searching for the right combination, the perfect seven, to get them their fifth consecutive Class 4A state championship.

And it’s just not at the varsity level.

Even the junior varsity times matter.

“I don’t have my top seven set yet when it comes to who I’m taking to regionals,” said Cesar Morales, San Elizario’s head coach. “I have two candidates on my JV team that could probably move up to varsity and the varsity team knows that. The way we look at it, we don’t run varsity or JV meets, we run for times. It’s a very healthy competition within our team and they support each other. They’re giving it their all and I’m very proud of that.”

The District 3-4A Championship is Oct. 12 at the Chamizal National Memorial Park, followed by the Region 4A Meet Oct. 22 at Mae Simmons Park in Lubbock and the State Cross Championship Nov. 3 at Old Settler’s Park in Round Rock.

The Eagles, which are ranked No. 1 in the state in Class 4A by the Cross Country Coaches Association of Texas and No. 3 in the city by El Paso Running, will travel to The Woodlands for the Nike South Invitational Saturday.

San Elizario has won five straight invitationals to start the season, with sophomore Edwin Gomez winning four of five meets.

Irvin Vasquez (580) and Tony Diaz (575) have been consistent runners for San Elizario this season. They will be counted on as the championship season draws near.

The base of San Elizario’s team includes Gomez, Seth Rodriquez, Martin Pargas, Dilan Sanchez, Irvin Vasquez, and Tony Diaz.

Junior Rene Arambula, who finished second at the 2017 Region 1-4A Championship and fifth at State, is recovering from an injury. He ran his first race of the season in the Open Division at the Franklin Invitational.

He too is looking to regain his 2017 form and help the Eagles to five state championships in a row.

“Every year we graduate some quality runners, our best runners, so it’s always a mystery trying to figure out who is going to come up and how they are going to hold up,” Morales said. “Even Edwin and my top three runners, you never know what’s going to happen with them and the injuries they might have during the season.”

Morales said the success of the program over the past six years is a credit to the work ethic of the San Elizario community and the culture that has been built around the cross country team.

“Other coaches ask me if there’s a secret to what we are doing,” he said. “I wish there was but there really isn’t. It’s just kids who are willing to work and give their 100 percent every day. They are smart about what they do and they are committed to the workout and that’s all any coach could ask for.”

Gomez, who won the UIL Class 4A country state title in 15:36.16 as a freshman, agrees with Morales.

“I’ve been running since I was in the fourth grade, that’s when my brother told me about how good the high school team was,” he said. “When I was in the sixth grade, that’s when they started winning state championships.  It was then when I thought to myself that I wanted to win one, too.”

Seth Rodriguez has been San Elizario’s No. 2 man all season. He has a power ranking of 26, 10th highest in the city.

Gomez said there really is a running culture in San Elizario.

“The kids at the middle school look forward to running cross country when they get to high school,” he said. “The middle school kids work hard and look up to the high school runners. That’s how they get inspired to keep on working to be able to run for a state championship one day.”

With the district, regional and state meets looming in the next month, Morales said the team’s focus is to improve with every meet.

“When it comes to the state title, we try not to think about it,” he said. “We never talk about state championships. We do talk about getting better and improving our times. I’ve told them I don’t care if we win state, all I want from them is to improve their times and for them to give me their best every day, be respectful to the workout and to the team.”


The Heart of a Champion

The pain and disappointment Cleo Naranjo felt two years ago in Albuquerque propelled the 12 year-year-old to a national championship in 2017.

This summer track season, the El Paso Panthers distance runner has her sights set on repeating her USATF National Junior Olympics Track and Field Championship in the 3,000 meter run.

The defense of that All American, national championship performance began June 2 at the 2nd Sara Bone Invitational where she placed first in the 1,500 in 5:09.93, she competed in the 13-14 age division

“I made it to regionals in Albuquerque two years ago,” she said. “At the hotel, I didn’t eat much but my stomach was hurting when the race started.”

During the 3,000 meter race – a smudge under two miles (1.86 miles to be exact) – she began to cramp.

“I was still running in the top five and the top five advance to nationals but it just got worse and worse,” she said, grimacing at the memory. “Towards the end of the race I started to feel really bad, Right then I knew my race was over, I was done.”

She ended up finishing last – dead last.

On that fateful day in July 2016, on the Milne Stadium track in Albuquerque, Naranjo discovered   her passion to run, to compete, to chase a national championship.

“From that day forward, she knew where she needed to be to compete at that level,” said Sergio Talavera, the El Paso Panthers coach. “From then on, she started training with a chip on her shoulder. She wanted it, it was in her heart and through her hard work and her parents support she made it happen.”

At last year’s USATF National Junior Olympics Track and Field Championships at the University of Kansas, she won the 3,000 meters national championship in a time of 10:44.08 and was All American in the 1,500 meters finishing 6th in 5:03.94.

Naranjo, a former soccer player, has been running for only three seasons.

“Two years ago, I wasn’t really sure if I was going to like it,” she said. “Running was a new thing for me so I didn’t know how to run or to pace myself.’

Talavera placed her in the sprints to start but she didn’t feel she could excel in those shorter distances.

“The first practice I had with distance was in the sand and that was really hard,” she said. “But considering it was my first time and it was in the sand coach said I did really good. He knew I was a distance runner right then and there.”

She loves putting in the miles.

“It’s fun,” she said. “I’ve gained a lot of experience running the 3,000 so I’m use to how to pace myself and what interval times I have to hit in order to be where I want to be at the end.”

Naranjo will race in the 800, 1,500 and 3,000 at this weekend’s 3rd Annual Panthers Track & Field Invitational at Mt. View High School.

The running events begin at 5 p.m. Friday and 7:15 a.m. Saturday.

Talavera said he knew Naranjo was special the first day of practice three years ago.

“I use her as an example as to what hard work and dedication to your sport will bring,” he said. “There are a lot of people, especially in El Paso, who don’t believe they can become a national champion.

“When other runners were finishing in the top three or top five, I would say, ‘there are only three or f20180606_201105our kids standing before you, what makes them any better?’ I tell them they are there in front because they are the ones with the bigger heart that’s what pushes them through it. That’s what makes them a champion and that’s what Cleo has, a heart of a champion. She is an athlete who knows what she wants.”

Naranjo is the first El Paso Panther athlete to win a national championship.

“I want to get back to nationals,” she said. “It was such a great experience. It’s been worth all the miles that I’ve put in.”