Ricky Esqueda spent one year at Hartnell College, and it turned out to be one of the most productive single-seasons by an athlete in school history. The 2013 San Benito High graduate recently concluded a season in which he finished in fifth place in the 10,000-meter run of the California Community College Athletic Association State Championships, clocking a time of 31 minutes, 42.78 seconds.
The performance was the ninth fastest in school history, and that was coming off a spectacular performance in the Northern California Championships in which Esqeuda won the 10K, took second in the 5000 and fourth in the 1500. The 22-year-old Esqueda was rewarded with a scholarship to run cross country and track at Division II powerhouse Western State Colorado in Gunnison. Western State Colorado is one of the premier programs in the nation, with runners on their roster plenty capable of running for a Division I program.
Esqueda doesn’t have Division I eligibility because he enrolled at Northwestern University out of high school and spent nearly two years there. He’s headed to Western State fully expecting to make an impact, similar to the way former Anzar High and Hartnell College standout Diego Leon did at Montana State.
Esqueda, who signed his letter of intent May 25, can’t wait to make a similar impact at the four-year level. Hartnell coach Chris Zepeda has made the Leon-Esqueda comparison in that both runners were outstanding in high school but didn’t have four-year scholarship offers until they developed their talent with hard work at the community college level.
Leon has gone on to do incredible things at Montana State, posting PRs of 3:44.09 in the 1500 and 13:39.89 in the 5000 this season, including a solid 31st-place showing in the 5000 in the loaded NCAA Division I West Region Championships on May 26. Esqueda and his coaches believe he is capable of dropping his times lower—just like Leon’s coaches did when he transferred to Montana State—to the point where others will take notice.
“(Western State track assistant) Coach (Jennifer) Michel has a lot of faith in me and believes I can rise to another level,” Esqueda said. “I believe I can contribute to the team, but it will be a matter of putting in the work and learning as much as I can. You can say something, but in terms of reaching that goal, it takes work.”
Not only has Esqueda shined on the track, but he’s excelled in the classroom as well. Esqueda and another former Balers’ standout, Chace Miguel, were awarded the 2017-2018 Hartnell College Scholar Athletes of the Year. Hartnell awarded Esqueda and Miguel $1,000 each to go toward their tuition fees at their respective four-year universities.
“It’s a good honor to receive,” said Esqueda, who had a 4.0 GPA during the school year. “I feel validated after putting in a lot of work over the year, not just athletically but academically. I try to be a well-rounded person.”
Esqueda felt most proud of his performance at state, as he was going up against top-notch competition. He said the eventual winner was a Division I kickback from the University of Colorado, and Esqueda hung with the leaders until the final mile. Simply put, everything Esqueda learned about track tactics came together in that race.
“Even though I was able to win NorCals, state was more exciting because I was able to stay in the mix against the best guys in the state,” he said. “These were guys I had lost to before by wider margins. I was going for fourth place at the end (and All-America status) and was right on the guy, and he ended up kicking it at the end.”
Even though the 5K and 10K are his best events, Esqueda competed in some 800 and 1500s, both for speedwork and helping his team accumulate points in certain meets. The 800 and 1500 are tactical races that require a lot of thinking and precision, and one move could cost you a win or different places. This was all a part of the learning curve for Esqueda, who didn’t have to deal with tactics—along the same lines in track—as he did in cross country.
“It’s kind of like a chess game and poker all in one because you can make so many moves during the course of a race,” he said. “You can call someone’s bluff or assume they’re bluffing and stay in your own race. It’s really about maintaining your race plan and executing it. This year I became better at executing my plan in races, and that helped me at the state meet. I didn’t have to worry about when someone would surge or made certain moves, because I was in my own zone.”
Last fall, Esqueda had a terrific cross country season, winning the Coast Conference and NorCal Championships before a solid 12th place finish in the state championships. In the process, Esqueda set the all-time school record at Toro Park (20:15), and the second fastest mark ever among all individuals.
Esqueda followed that up with a track season that included lifetime bests in the 800 (2:02.52), 1500 (4:02.56), 3000 meters (8:56.02), 5000 meters (15:19.37), and 10,000. On the track, Esqueda had to get out of his comfort zone, and it made him a better runner and racer.
“A lot of it is about mechanics,” he said. “On the track, there is a very specific way to run, especially when changing gears and pacing. In the 800 and 1500, it’s more about turnover and stride. I’m happy by the end everything started to click, and I got my fastest times.”