With one of the smallest enrollments in the Central Coast Section and lacking the resources many small private schools possess, Anzar High will always have the uplifting Little Engine That Could-type storyline.
Such was the case with the Hawks girls cross country team this season, which had a resurgence under coach Monica Jo Gilmore. Freshman Angelina Tran finished seventh in the Pacific Coast League Santa Lucia Division championship with a time of 23 minutes, 24 seconds to earn all-league honors, and classmate Victoria Flores took 10th in 23:49 as the duo look to be the cornerstones for the team to build around in the coming years.
As a result of her league finish, Tran earned a berth into the Central Coast Section Championships on Nov. 13 at Crystal Springs in Belmont. Even though Tran wasn’t terribly happy with her performance—she finished in 43rd place in the Division V race—she knew making CCS was a great accomplishment considering how much she improved from the start of the season.
Plus, whatever disappointment Tran felt quickly went away because her family, Flores’ family and Gilmore were there to celebrate her participation in the event.
“The experience was great and fun overall,” she said. “I never believed I was going to be at the CCS Championships, so it was pretty cool.”
Flores cheered on her close friend and is optimistic about qualifying for CCS next year.
“For sure, I’ll come out and try my best to stay with Angelina,” Flores said. “It was fun to come here and support her.”
Flores and Tran have five class periods together, so they see a lot of each other on and off the course. Even though Flores and Tran both ran in middle school, they said their time at Anzar has been their best experience competing in the sport. A lot of that has to do with Gilmore, who has coached cross country and track for 20-plus years and was in her first year coaching at Anzar.
Gilmore gave all the credit to her freshmen standouts for being motivated, energetic and coachable.
“Angelina is a tough cookie, loves to ask questions and wants to learn and know what she has to do to keep improving,” Gilmore said. “That’s the kind of athlete any coach wants to help because they’re open, willing and receptive. We’ve been working on her mental toughness and trying to encourage her to trust her fitness and go out there and run free and let everything fall where they fall because she’s earned whatever she gets.”
For Tran, running is therapeutic.
“I feel free when I’m running and not focused on all my problems,” she said. “Running allows me to focus on something else in a positive way.”
Tran’s father, Vu, said it’s been a joy to see his daughter take on running with such vigor and diligence. Angelina dabbled in other sports like basketball until she started competing on Anzar’s cross country team this year.
“I think she’s found her passion,” Vu said. “I’ve never seen my daughter so happy. At first I’m thinking, ‘OK, we’ll see how long this lasts.’ Because I’m not a runner and her mom is not a runner. We’re so proud of her and it’s wonderful when a young person finds something they’re so motivated and passionate about. She’s happy when she’s running and free like a horse out of a stall.”
Running is all about overcoming pain and adversity, so perhaps it’s only appropriate Flores has taken a liking to cross country. After all, Flores knows what true pain feels like. Two years ago, Flores needed to undergo surgery to remove a cyst in her liver. Although the surgery was successful, it was a long, arduous journey just to get to that point.
In the months leading up to the surgery, Flores underwent many tests and procedures to determine the location of the cyst. Flores underwent blood transfusions and was put on strong antibiotics to treat an infection and spent months in and out of the hospital, which seemingly was pushing Flores’ parents to have their daughter undergo a liver transplant.
The cyst was in a location where surgeons were not comfortable removing it. They deemed it too risky. Flores’ dad, Ignacio, would have none of that. He was bullish on a liver transplant because a transplant is often a last-resort measure for liver disease and survival rates vary widely.
As they weighed their options, Igancio and his wife Angelica were actually taking part in a three-day informational process catered to those who are anticipating a liver transplant procedure, either for themselves or a loved one. However, Ignacio wasn’t ready for it and something didn’t feel right.
Ultimately, a renowned surgeon, Dr. Carlos Esquivel, who happened to be at the hospital the same day the family was starting the process for the transplant, intervened and said, “If you trust me, I could remove the cyst from Victoria’s liver,” thereby bypassing the transplant route. Ignacio praised the efforts of Esquivel and liver doctor Noelle Ebel for their “miraculous work” and lifting a weight off their shoulders and avoiding a transplant.
Through all the turmoil and uncertainty, Ignacio said the family gained inspiration from Victoria, who displayed an indefatigable resolve and optimistic demeanor.
“Throughout this whole thing, here was my daughter with such great spirits and uplifting herself everyday,” he said. “She was always positive and smiling, and she was never down or depressed. She never gave up hope and that was the bright light that helped us through this. I remember telling my wife, ‘Hey listen, here we are as parents being really worried and here’s our daughter who is saying let’s go and showing a lot of energy and enthusiasm. She really elevated us to a different level of belief of faith and confidence to overcome things.”
Gilmore praised Flores for her determination and resiliency.
“Victoria has so much heart and is tough,” she said. “I told her with everything she’s endured in life, running up hills is nothing.”
From Flores’ point of view, the toughest part of her ordeal was when doctors initially told her she might never be able to run again. Fortunately for Flores, that never came close to happening. Despite not being able to run much this past summer, Flores was able to accumulate the necessary mileage once the season started.
“Being able to run this year has been a blessing,” she said. “The team is amazing, we’re all supportive of each other and I love running.”
So does Ignacio, who ran cross country and track at Fresno State from 1994-1996 and like Gilmore inspires youth to exercise and use running as a life lesson tool to value hard work, discipline and working alongside teammates. Gilmore can’t wait to see how Flores and Tran develop in the coming years, and she hopes others will take notice of their accomplishments.
“It doesn’t matter what school you come from, it’s the quality of the athlete,” Gilmore said. “If the athlete is willing to work hard, they can do as much as an athlete from a big school can. Ultimately, it’s the kid who has to believe, do the work and race. I told the kids from day one it takes heart and if you have a willingness to learn and accomplish something, I can help them do that. Angelina and Victoria are evidence of that.”