Canoga Park junior Omar Salas had one question for the boys he was trying to recruit for the cross country team.
“I asked them do you want to become champions.” Salas said with a smile.
Salas and sophomore Eduardo Flores was able to convince four other boys to join the cross country team. A sport that requires training in scorching conditions, climbing up mountains and dusty roads. Flores and Salas said cross country would become a training tool for soccer. But in the next three in a half months the agonizing stomach pains and mass consumption of electrolytes would become a test of fortitude and learning how to survive harsh conditions.
It was a lesson learned from sophomore Nicholas Moore. Moore never played sports, instead focusing on being a member of the school’s academic decathlon team. Studying for hours and hours on end with pens and pencils coming out of his darkly colored hair. Nicholas’s mom told him he had to go out and do something physical.
Moore was reluctant at first. He was afraid of being yelled at admitted he hated sports. That all changed when Flores and Salas convinced Moore to give cross country a shot.
“I didn’t want to do a play a sport at all but my mom just kind of forced me and when I saw how positive everyone was on this team I knew this was my team,” Moore said. “Sometimes there would be times when we would be running and I would want to stop and just quit. But my coaches and my teammates continued to motivate me and their love and passion made me want to work even harder.”
As the summer progressed, Salas and Flores started to see the results. Each runner’s individual times became better with each man pushing each other to be better is individuals and as teammates. It became clear that Canoga Park was doing more than building the bodies of a few reluctant boys.
Coaches Gonzalo Vazquez and Mohamed Haddada, began practices at 6 a.m. and pushing Salas, Flores, Moore, senior Sebastian Rojas, sophomore Jeffrey Rivas and junior Sonny Hernandez to places where they hadn’t been before.
Every obstacle became a building block and every sprint became a race to challenge one another. The adrenaline of cross country began to take over.
“I’m just so proud of these guys and everything they accomplished because they learned something that can’t just be taught within the classroom,” Haddada said. “They became leaders and they ran for each other. They fought for each other and in all the years I’ve been coaching, it was so rewarding to see these guys achieve.
Practice started at 5 a.m. Not just because the coaches felt the importance of rising early but so it also gave time to its runners who lead lives outside of school and sports. Flores has to look after younger siblings while his parents work multiple jobs. Rojas watches over his younger sister and extended family. Salas has to skip athletics to help his dad who works as a gardener. Hernandez works a part-time job at Little Caesar’s and Rivas protects his younger siblings when his mother and father begin to fight.
“The thing that this group did for me was help me stay focused even when life became rough,” Rivas said. “Sometimes we would have to miss practice because we all have our lives to attend to but our coaches understand that. That’s why when we came back to work, we would make sure we took it upon ourselves to get to that next step.”
It all came together for Rivas and the Hunters during the CIF LA City Section finals at Pierce College. Salas the captain took his mark at the front of the pack and off his team ran towards a title that seemed almost remote at the beginning of the year. As Salas crossed the finish line he didn’t pause to take a breath and continued to cheer his teammates on after pushing through three miles of terrain.
More green and white jerseys began to follow with Flores, Rojas, Rivas, Hernandez and Moore the kid who almost quit. After 30 minutes of deliberation, Salas saw the scores and Canoga Park linked arm to arm in celebration. Vindication and triumph filled the Hunters with pride and gave the six boys a reason to smile and revel in their accomplishment.
“People underestimate Canoga Park because we are a small school and they don’t see us as anything,” Salas said. “But in all the sports we compete and win a city title and we want to show the other schools the bigger schools that look at us like we are less that we have heart.”
And indeed Canoga Park showed it did have heart. Miles and miles of heart.
Written by Ethan Hanson