Their slight frames and long legs make them easy to spot, although they are clearly trying to hide.
Once again, the end-of-summer heat has pushed cross-country practice to 5:30 p.m., and everyone is better off in the shade: under the trees, inside their cars, or stuck to the gym walls.
When the time is right, Belen Jesuit coach Frankie Ruiz lets a nearby group know that he is ready, and his message reproduces through WhatsApp. Soon enough, 51 boys are running shirtless around the track.
“Back in the day, you had to run over or call them with a megaphone,” the coach says.
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Despite being only 39, Ruiz begins many of his sentences with “back in the day.”
A Belen alum, he graduated in 1996, when the team was only 15-men strong and their asphalt track flooded often. Ruiz founded the Miami Marathon and many of the city’s running clubs since, but stuck to coaching teenage racers at his school, and has won eight state championships with them.
Winning breeds winning, and he now leads the biggest group of high school runners he has ever had.
“Running is in a different place in the U.S. than it was before, and there are kids that grew up in a dragon stroller”, he says.
Some of those kids are now running for his team. More often than not, Ruiz runs with them, to get a sense of how they’re breathing, what they’re saying and how their bodies are reacting. “That way, they can never look me in the face and say: ‘why don’t you do it?’”, he remarks proudly.
With a team of current state champions always striving for more, it is getting harder and harder just to keep up.
A winning culture
Born in a family of runners, Adam Magoulas also started his career as the passenger of a stroller. Now 15, he is the second fastest freshman in the country. Magoulas is also one of the leaders at Belen Jesuit, and the one that will most likely shape the team’s long-term goals. He wants to race at Nationals, and he’ll need a squad for it.
Unlike track, cross country has a strong team component to it. A team is made of seven members, and earns a final score for the results of its top 5 runners. Depth of talent is rewarded above everything: you are only as strong as your last runner.
“During a race, you think about how much time you put up to that point that you don’t want to let go to waste, and how I don’t want to let these guys down,” Magoulas said.
Teammates can even talk during a race, and strategize on the run.
At Belen Jesuit, Magoulas shares the job with standout seniors Sebastian Roa, Lucas de la Hoz and Cesar Aguzzi. The trio wants to run collegiately, but is not rushing into any decisions. But Ruiz is keeping them on their toes.
“We’re not happy when he destroys us, but he always does it with our goal in mind,” says Roa.
The season is already under way. It is Ruiz’s 17th as Belen Jesuit’s coach, and another shot at classifying to the National Championships, to be held in Dec. 1.
For a school without any notable mounds nearby, the State Championship seems like quite a feat, but they have already been there. Which means Ruiz has to get creative. The school recently acquired a treadmill to help with incline work, but they cannot fit everyone in, so they will often make up for it running highway overpasses and parking garages.
The change in weather conditions presents an immense challenge for Ruiz, who has to make them peak at the right time while avoiding burnout and injury.
“We used to have a few cooler days during the season,” he recalls. “Now we can only push so hard after a 90-degree day.”
Ruiz has also seen happier changes with the times. They now travel to Oregon and Colorado for summer training. They get their workouts by email, and the results of the races are online almost instantly. They even use GPS watches, which Ruiz sometimes has removed because it gets in the way of learning how they feel.
“Kids have a different perception of length of time than that of an adult,” he remarks. “They talk about today, not tomorrow, and as a coach you have to adjust, because they either get impatient or put things off.”
The elder statesman talk never leaves the young coach, who delivers a few instructions before removing his t-shirt and following one of the packs running round the school trails. “When I stick with these guys, I feel a little less old,” he had said a few minutes before.
South Florida’s top returning state performer by class
Boys’ 4A: Junior Aiden Breslin, St. Thomas Aquinas, 24th at state (16:22.55)
Girls’ 4A: Junior Rebecca Bergnes, Braddock, 15th at state (19:04.05)
Boys’ 3A: Senior Lucas de la Hoz, Belen Jesuit, 16th at state (16:32.23)
Girls’ 3A: Junior Valerie Lastra, Mater Academy, 4th at state (18:16.86)
Boys’ 2A: Junior Robert Pedroza, Key West, 7th at state (15:53.05)
Girls’ 2A: Junior Tsion Yared, Pine Crest, state champion (18:00.16)
Boys 1A: Senior Aydan Child, Marathon, 16th at state (16:51.94)
Girls’ 1A: Eighth grader Lauren McGaffic, Miami Country Day, 20th at state (20:00.20)