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Saugus track's Rodrigo Ornelas: Determined to be the best

Last falls second place finish in cross country wasn't enough for the Saugus senior

Posted: May 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: May 31, 2013 2:00 a.m.

Saugus senior Rodrigo Ornelas will run in the CIF state 3,200m race on Saturday.

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Even now, he still thinks about second place.

Saugus senior Rodrigo Ornelas is haunted by it every time he runs.

When he and the Saugus cross country team came up just short of winning a state title last fall, Ornelas took it personally.

“We failed at state,” Ornelas says. “That’s how it felt like in second place.”

Never mind the fact that it matched the best finish in school history for the Saugus boys team.

But he managed to harness that disappointment into the best track and field season of his career this spring. This weekend, he’ll be one of five athletes from the Santa Clarita Valley to compete at the CIF State Track and Field Championships at Buchanan High School in Clovis. It’s just a few miles down the road from the infamous second place finish.

Simply making the trip up there feels like redemption for Ornelas

“I’m really excited to race. I’m just kind of going for that big (personal record), running with the best of the guys and with the best in the state,” says Ornelas, who ran his lifetime best 9 minutes, 8.58 seconds in the 3,200-meter race at last week’s CIF-Southern Section Masters Meet to qualify for state the day after his high school graduation.

Due to the fact that the 3,200 race doesn’t include a prelim, he’ll race in Saturday’s final among a field of 26 runners for a chance at a title.

“I’m not surprised that he’s going,” says Saugus teammate Alex Pearson. “He definitely works hard every day. He’s very motivated. I know that’s been his goal to go to state and I know he deserves to be there.”

Ornelas’ journey to Clovis certainly didn’t come without some bumps in the road.

He started out as a below-average freshman who struggled to break the 5-minute barrier in the mile. He was just there to hang out with friends on the cross country team.

“We have a million kids like that. He wasn’t very dedicated,” says Rene Paragas, Saugus track and field distance coach and cross country head coach.

Nothing stuck out about Ornelas back then. He admits he didn’t think of himself as a high-caliber runner at the time, so he didn’t feel the need to push himself.

But Paragas started to see potential and urged Ornelas to invest more heavily into running. What Paragas saw was toughness and resiliency, but it wasn’t yet translating into competitive results.

“He always had the mental aspect,” Paragas says. “He just needed miles under his belt. He needed what we call, ‘the trials of the miles.’”

By the fall of his junior year, things were looking up and his times were dropping until he hit another snag. Ornelas was ruled academically ineligible to compete midway through cross country season.

He had to sit and watch his team win a JV Foothill League title without him.

“That really kind of hurt emotionally,” Ornelas says. “I felt really depressed because I felt like I could become the league champ ... and become one those top dogs.”

He says he was angry for months after that, which fueled his devotion further.

That meant more miles on the weekends and a full summer of running prior to his senior year.

It was the first time he’d decided to give up playing soccer with his friends during the summer months to instead train for the upcoming running season.

“He just totally turned the other direction,” Pearson says. “Pretty much he went from missing practices to totally being there all the time, 100 percent just focused, motivating everyone.”

By the start of his senior year, Ornelas’ grades were back up and his race times were down.

He won the Foothill League individual cross country title on Nov. 1, 2012 and followed with a track and field league crown in the 3,200 earlier this month.

Coming into track and field season, his best time in the 3,200 was roughly 9:50. With his Masters Meet race, he’s knocked off an incredible 42 seconds off that mark in a single spring.

It would be hard for Ornelas to be disappointed with that, regardless of where he ends up in Saturday’s race.

“It’s a great story. I’m not sure I can take any credit,” Paragas says. “I’m not sure anyone can. It really has to come from within.”



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