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Belen wins ninth overall cross-country title

Wolverines bonded, sacrificed, are optimistic about repeating championship run next year

Belen Jesuit's cross country runners pose with their coaches after winning their ninth overall state title.


Belen Jesuit's cross country runners pose with their coaches after winning their ninth overall state title.

WINTER GARDEN | Belen Jesuit used five runners finishing in the top 21 to win the Class 3A FHSAA Boys Cross Country Finals at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.

After finishing third place last year, the Wolverines won their ninth title overall with 57 points. Tallahassee Chiles, running in its hometown, finished second with 111 points. It was Belen’s first state championship since winning four in a row in 2010-13. The Wolverines had also finished fourth in 2015 and third in 2014.

Senior Joshua Collins, who finished fourth overall last year, climbed up to second place by finishing the 5-kilometer course in 15 minutes, 39.32 seconds. He finished 25 seconds behind champion Michael Phillips of Tallahassee Chiles, who won in 15:14.69.


Sacrificing for the team

Belen coach Frankie Ruiz said that Collins sacrificed a potential victory to further ensure the team victory. Ruiz said that he and Collins, who signed a national letter of intent to run cross country at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, discussed running a more conservative race to guarantee points in case the team race was closer. He did that instead of keeping up with Phillips.

“The approach was either put it all on the line and run an incredible race, or do you run a pretty good race that you know you can do and spare the risk of going for it and hurting the entire team?” Ruiz said. “I’ve had athletes before that had a chance to win but cost the team 10-12 points because they faded.”

Collins improved, but Belen’s big climb came in the middle of the team. Unlike last year, when the top five finished in the top 50, they all picked up the pace and finished in the top 21. Junior Lucas de la Hoz, eighth-grader Adam Magoulas and junior Sebastian Roa took 16th, 17th and 18th overall, finishing within 2 seconds of each other. Junior Cesar Aguzzi took the final scoring position, finishing 21st. Belen Jesuit also got a 26th-place finish from freshman Diego Gomez and a 37th-place finish from Matthew Bryan.

Ruiz said the key was a strategy of running as a pack. He first tested that strategy in the crucible of the District 16-3A meet. There, the Wolverines posted a perfect score, actually finishing with 10 runners in the top 12. Collins won the individual race by nearly a minute, but the rest of the top five finished within 4 seconds of each other.

“I gave them instructions that day, using it as a dry rehearsal for state,” Ruiz said. “It was to do what our teams do pretty well: run in a pack, which is easier said than done. It’s a lot easier than running by ourselves.”

He gave the Wolverines specific marks to hit, and they hit them. His strategy was to have the top 5 all place in the 20s, and run as a pack through each milepost. At district, the Wolverines did so through the first mile, second mile and so on. His thought was if his top 5 runners finished 20th or higher, then his team can withstand other teams having stars place higher, especially at state.

“In retrospect, I’ve asked for things to be done, and sometimes one or two kids would miss it,” he said. “I learned that I couldn’t ask them to do something they hadn’t done before, especially at the state meet.”


At the foot of a legend

Ruiz said his team’s road to state began with a trip to Oregon, where the Wolverines visited distance-running legend Alberto Salazar, a devout Catholic. Salazar observed the Wolverines during a couple of workouts and made some observations that changed the team’s perspective on training and the sport as whole.

Salazar especially talked about current international distance-running star Galen Rupp. “He was a high-school cross-country runner who works pretty darn hard,” Ruiz said. “A lot of conversations revolved around this notion that this team had to work harder. That was the bottom line. Having him humanize some of the athletes we put on these pedestals, which helped quite a bit.”

The visit to Oregon set the tone, but athletes felt that they could reach great heights after a couple workouts prior to the district meet. One was a long run, while the other was a repeat workout. Ruiz said coaches would tell them they could do it, but it wasn’t until they started hitting their times that the team unified in the same direction.


Overcoming challenges

Ruiz realized it in Hurricane Irma’s aftermath. He said none of his athletes suffered damage, but his home got 6 inches of seawater in it. He is still in alternate living arrangements. “The day after the hurricane, we were at Tropical Park training,” he said. “The entire team showed up. They’re hungry; they’re willing to work. Those next few days, we held two-a-day practices, and they were showing up in droves.”

The team took part in school efforts to help areas affected by other hurricanes. The team also had some adversity, for which faith carried them through. Middle-school cross-country coach Gabriel von der Osten’s heart stopped at a cross-country meet. Ruiz said that von der Osten has a heart condition that requires an internal defibrillator. To save his life, doctors at Jackson Memorial Hospital placed him into an induced coma. He is now home and on the path to recovery.

“One thing that brought us together was a lot of prayer,” Ruiz said. “Once he snapped out of the coma, his first question was, ‘How can I get to the state meet? How can I watch the varsity team?’”

The Wolverines won their state title with four underclassmen finishing in the top 5. Ruiz said that the Wolverines are already thinking of topping their 2017 performance. Should they do that, Belen could tie Largo for most championships with 10.

Ruiz wants his team to enjoy the fruits of their labor this year. But with several newcomers set to boost the team, a repeat is possible.

“We’ve got ourselves back on track,” Ruiz said. “We had gone three years where we were falling short of our goal, which is always to win a state championship. Now we’ve rebuilt our depth, and I’m excited. The guys are soaking in the sport, which is what we were missing the last couple years.”

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