Avery Lopez and his Belen cross-country teammates found themselves this summer in the Colorado home of Frank Shorter, a magical name in the running community and an Olympic gold medalist in the 1972 marathon.
“You walk in,” Lopez said, “and you immediately see his degree from Yale, his law-school degree from Florida, pictures of him in the Olympics, and you are able to touch his gold and silver medals.
“It’s neat to see medals you aspire to earn, and you are holding them in the palm of your hands. They’re not yours, but you are holding them, and not a lot of people get to do that.”
Then again, not a lot of kids get to accomplish what the Belen runners have done the past six years — winning five state titles.
In fact, no other boys’ cross-country team in Florida has won as many titles in that span, and the Wolverines hope to add another championship when the state meet is held Nov. 17 in Tallahassee.
Last year, Belen’s team was ranked sixth in the nation after winning its second state title in a row and taking the Nike regional championships in Cary, N.C. This year, the Wolverines are again undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the state, regardless of class.
Belen has had to replace Elliot Clemente, who won the individual state title and is now running for Florida, and Francisco Tejidor, who finished 13th and competes for Holy Cross.
Lopez, a senior who finished fourth at state last year, has stepped into the leadership void left behind by Clemente.
“Elliot led every single workout, and he set the bar high,” Lopez said. “The race he ran at state was total domination.
“I was the next person in line [at Belen]. It’s my job to set the pace and keep my teammates pumped up and hungry.”
Lopez has done his job well, continuing a Belen running tradition that few schools in the nation can match.
For starters, it has had only two coaches in the past 42 years: Carlos Barquin, who led Belen to the first of its six state titles in 1995 and is now the school’s athletic director, and Frankie Ruiz, who took over in 2002 and has won five rings.
Ruiz ran for Barquin on the ’95 team and served as his assistant before being promoted to coach.
“I learned a lot from [Barquin],” said Ruiz, who ran track at FIU and still competes in marathons once every couple years. “I always knew I wanted to coach, so I paid attention to things.”
Barquin started the Belen tradition of taking a summer running trip — usually to the hills of North Carolina — so the team could train at altitude.
Ruiz expanded the concept and has taken the boys to places where running rules, such as Oregon and Colorado.
“These kids compete in a sport that typically does not have a lot of spectators,” Ruiz said. “So I wanted to expose them to a part of the country where running is popular. I want them to know they are a part of something big.”
While on their 10-day trip this August, the boys toured the U.S. Olympic training center in Colorado Springs and ran at 5,000 feet elevation.
They also swam in the same pool where Michael Phelps has trained, talked running with the University of Colorado coach and got to see how the people in Boulder, Colo., live their lives.
“Everyone in Boulder is physically active,” Lopez said. “You don’t see obese people. In Miami, everyone drives to work. In Boulder, every street has a bike lane. If you are not in a bike, you’re running.”
Lopez said the 28 Belen runners who made the trip visited Colorado just after the Summer Olympics had ended.
“The atmosphere of the Olympics was still present,” he said. “The excitement was still there.”
The Belen runners have tried to take that spirit back to Miami and, so far, the team is cruising. Lopez and juniors Fabian Tomas and Michael Magoulas are leading the way.
All three finished in the top 10 individually at state last season, and Lopez’s times are only about 10 seconds behind what Clemente ran last year.
Depth is crucial in cross-country, and Belen’s most consistent No.4 and No. 5 runners have been junior Andy Fernandez and sophomore Ryan Rodriguez.
If it all goes as Ruiz and his team expects, Belen will have to make room in its trophy case for more hardware, and that will only add to the runners’ status among Wolverine athletes.
At most high schools, football, basketball and baseball players get the most acclaim. But at Belen, the runners get their respect.
“The football players are amazed at how many miles we run,” Lopez said. “They know we put in the work.”