Ricky Esqueda in transcendent state

Former Balers standout Ricky Esqueda won the California Community College NorCal Cross Country Championships last week. Photo by Alejandro Alcaraz.

As he broke the tape—signifying a decisive victory in last Friday’s California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA) Northern California Cross Country Championships at Toro Park in Salinas, Hartnell College standout Ricky Esqueda had flashbacks of all the peaks and valleys he’s had to endure to get to this point.

“It was a really amazing moment,” said Esqueda, a 2013 San Benito High graduate. “I yelled out at the end after everything I’ve been through. To get to where I’m at now, I definitely had tears there as I went up to (Hartnell) coach (Chris Zepeda) and thanked him for everything and giving me this opportunity.”

After years of heartbreak and struggle off the course, the 22-year-old Esqueda has once again found a haven on the dirt paths, a place that has brought him utter joy. This isn’t just a story of redemption; it’s a story of the human spirit and how a resilient young man has rebounded to become a record-breaker at Hartnell—and he’s just getting started.

Esqueda’s time of 20 minutes, 15 seconds not only was 20 seconds faster than the second-place finisher over the 4.1-mile course at Toro, but it established the school record by one second over former Panthers standout Diego Leon, who is now running on scholarship at Montana State University.

It just so happens that Esqueda and Leon are close friends, having met each other six years ago at a Tri County Running Club summer camp. And Leon—a former Anzar High product—played a vital role in Esqueda enrolling at Hartnell four years after the former Haybalers standout earned an academic scholarship to Northwestern University straight out of high school.

“Diego is one of my biggest role models,” Esqueda said. “He’s an inspiration for what he achieved at Hartnell, which was amazing and something no one thought possible coming out of high school. But he willed himself to be one of the best runners out there, and it shows what hard work and determination gets you. It’s something I try to embody as well.”

At San Benito High, Esqueda was the No. 2 runner behind Steven Velarde in his junior and senior years. As Esqueda noted, he was solid but not great; as a senior, he took 25th in the Division I race of the Central Coast Section Cross Country Championships. Although Esqueda loved running, he couldn’t pass up a hefty academic scholarship to Northwestern, which is one of the more prestigious academic universities in the Midwest.

Esqueda had a weighted 4.64 GPA in high school, good for third in the class of 2013. It was a huge honor to receive an academic scholarship to Northwestern, and something Esqueda couldn’t pass up. Esqueda’s love for running continued at Northwestern, where he ran for its club team. While not as competitive as the Division I program, Esqueda still managed to get in some decent miles and complete tough workouts.

However, Esqueda’s life was forever altered during his sophomore year, in February 2015. On the drive home from an indoor club track meet, Esqueda was involved in a serious car accident that left him with a severe concussion.

“That accident pretty much started a series of events that set me back in my academic career,” he said. “I had to drop out of the last three weeks of that winter quarter, and when the spring quarter started, I had to teach myself how to concentrate for long periods of time. It was a high stress time for me.”

With things seemingly spiraling out of control—Esqueda suffered from at times debilitating post-concussion effects—he started seeing a psychiatrist once every two weeks for a five-month period. By the start of the fall quarter of his junior year, Esqueda still wasn’t right. By January 2016, Esqueda stopped taking classes and returned back home to Hollister later that summer, having made the decision to put academics on hold.

“I needed to take time away from academics in order to work on myself as a person and know what I wanted out of life,” he said. “I had mental health issues, and it helped that I was able to talk about life, what went on and understanding where my emotions and feelings were coming from. Just being able to learn how to handle one’s own anxieties and emotions—that is something I needed to grasp.”

Esqueda used his time away from school wisely, writing and working three jobs, two of which included being a CASA program leader at the Hollister Youth Alliance and a power school program leader at the YMCA. While Esqueda was working, he still made it a point to run. Last December, Esqueda won the Christmas Double 8K race in San Juan Bautista. Five weeks later, Esqueda entered the Mission 10 Race, finishing in second place in a time of 55 minutes, 51 seconds—that’s a 5:35-minute mile pace—and just four seconds behind race winner Jorge Sanchez, another former Hartnell College standout who this past spring won a championship in the 5,000-meter run.

Zepeda saw Esqueda stay with Sanchez the entire race, and came away impressed—but hardly surprised. After all, Zepeda had recruited Esqueda out of high school, and in the world of community college sports, many of the success stories are storybook in nature because it’s never a straight path to glory or success.

Esqueda and Zepeda eventually started talking about the possibility of running at Hartnell, but Esqueda was busy with work and not sure if he was ready to go back to school. It was only in the spring during the track season when Esqueda looked at the times of the Hartnell runners who were in the Mission 10 field when it really whetted his appetite to be a part of a competitive running team again.

“I had this feeling that I needed to get better, and I needed to be a part of this team,” he said. “I had a real, strong intuitive sense of this and where I was going to go. When I saw the Hartnell team and how close they were, I had a feeling of, ‘Hey, I wish I could be a part of something like that.’ At a certain point, it became clear to me that academics was always going to be there, but running is something I really wanted to pursue in life.”

However, Esqueda said the decision was far from easy.

“Coming back to Hartnell, my family didn’t quite see where I was coming from,” he said. “They wondered why I had to choose this other path compared to the path that had been given to me already. They didn’t understand the approach I was taking, and it made me doubt a little bit on the decision I was going to make. But ultimately I had to decide what I wanted out of my future, and this is something I needed to do for myself—to pave my own path and find myself again.”

And so the comeback was on. Once Esqueda enrolled for classes at Hartnell, he started upping his mileage and worked out with the team during the summer on the weekends. Before the team started summer workouts, Zepeda never saw this coming.

“Ricky wasn’t in my equation (in terms of being a NorCal champ),” Zepeda said. “I had good returners coming back and had recruited good local kids to come in. Ricky was one of those pieces you didn’t take into account.”’

However, as Zepeda has done with many athletes over the years, he believed in Esqueda’s character and talent. As the season went along, Esqueda’s times continued to drop, and now a state championship is not entirely out of the equation. If Esqueda can nail another personal-record at the Nov. 18 State Championships at Fresno’s Woodward Park, he’ll be right in the mix for an individual title.

Whatever happens, Esqueda’s future has plenty of promise. He’s going to take running as far as he can, but sees teaching as a potential career later on down the line. In the NorCal race, Esqueda made his move at the halfway point, climbing one of Toro’s hills and pulling away from the competition.

“I was more aggressive than I usually was and never looked back,” he said. “I knew I needed to keep going—the only way was to go forward.”

That in a nutshell sums up Esqueda’s life. He’ll never forget that February 2015 day, an accident that left him scarred, emotionally and physically. Yet Esqueda has risen out of the ashes, a testament to his determination and toughness. Those who have experienced a severe concussion know the post effects are brutal.

However, Esqueda hasn’t let that accident deter him from realizing his potential.

“I wouldn’t be the person I am today without that experience,” he said. “I run now using all that is behind me as motivation to continue to push and get better. I’ll go to state with the possibility of winning the whole thing.”

If Esqueda can produce another spectacular performance at state, he’ll surely reflect on all of the highs and lows he’s endured in the last couple of years. He’ll think back to that dreadful day in which his future was altered forever, and the year or two that followed where his life was seemingly in utter shambles.

Then he’ll think about all of the hard work and sacrifices he’s made to turn his life around—one day at a time—leading to a moment of greatness and beauty.

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