It is derisively known as a dusty backwater bathroom stop on the road to Las Vegas, a desolate Southern California desert town in the middle of nowhere on old Route 66.

It is also home to a budding high school boys cross-country dynasty, a unifying source of immense pride for a hardscrabble-yet-tightly knit and diverse community.

Welcome to Barstow, where any day of the week you'll find members of the three-time CIF Division III state champs, who just won their fifth title in seven years, getting their road work in. If they're not avoiding scorpions and rattlesnakes in the hills and ravines of the surrounding desert, they might just run by the first Del Taco in the country on their way past what was, as local legend has it, the largest McDonald's in the world, before meeting in the parking lot of Wal-Mart, the town's seeming social center.

"I've always seen it as a working class town, very blue collar," said Barstow High coach Jim Duarte, a BHS graduate (Class of 1966). "A lot of people struggle in this town. It's nice when I see some of these kids go on and prosper."

Especially when it's his program, which has qualified for the state finals 10 years running, that serves as a springboard for youngsters who otherwise may not have had the opportunity. After all, some team members had never seen the ocean or forest before a road trip. Throw in the self-respect the Aztecs bring home with their running exploits and it's easy to see how they provide such dignity for Barstow, which also boasts an NFL wide receiver in the Cincinnati Bengals' T.J. Houshmanzadeh and a major league baseball third-base coach in the Los Angeles Angels' Dino Ebel.

But it is at the prep level around which the city of 23,575, which is 58.6 percent white, 39.6 percent Latino, 9.0 percent African American, has a median household income of less than $42,000 and is kept afloat by three military bases, a Santa Fe railroad depot and two outlet shopping malls, truly rallies. The Aztecs certainly gave their town reason to celebrate in their two most recent meets.

At the CIF-Southern Section Finals at Mt. San Antonio College, BHS's team time of 77:08 set a Division III team time record and was the third fastest time in the venerated course's history. A week later at the state finals in Fresno, the Aztecs placed three in the top 10, six in the top 32, and their team time of 79:53 set a D-III state meet record as they beat runner-up Oak Park, 69-120. BHS has recorded four of the six fastest all-time D-III team times at the state finals.

Anthony Solis, Barstow's lone senior, placed third in state at 15:27 and credited the team and Duarte for keeping him focused. "I'd probably just be out there screwing around with my friends," he said. Instead, Solis is eyeing Chico State or Long Beach State to continue his running career and education. Just 6.2 percent of Barstow's population had a Bachelor's Degree at the 2000 census. "Random people just come up and say, good job, congratulations. That feels good."

Barstow High, with an enrollment of 1,800, is one of just four boys teams and two girls teams with at least five California state titles. Barstow's City Council has designated Dec. 17 as "BHS Boys Cross-Country Day."

After their first state title in 2001, the Aztecs were feted with a parade. Now, city council member Joe Gomez envisions a "Gateway Sign" on the freeway, informing visitors and passers-by alike that Barstow is home to the five-time, and counting, state champs.

"For one thing, they are putting Barstow on the map," Gomez said. "Not just in California; across the whole country. That's something that all of Barstow is really proud of. They have a great reputation as a classy team, not cocky, so that carries over for the city as well."

Duarte, who ran four years as a walk-on at UCLA, said his team carries a chip on its shoulder as an underdog, much like the town. A few years ago, the coach of a much larger school essentially dismissed Barstow when asked his thoughts of the Aztecs. "Yeah, they're good," the coach said, "for a small school."

"What I've tried to make my kids believe in is, we can do it," said Duarte, a history teacher who took over the program in 1994. "Don't just be satisfied with beating schools our size; go after the bigger schools, too. We love winning the state titles and it's been fantastic, but we're also cognizant of the other schools that are out there.

"It's really neat to hear the parents talking ... they're really jazzed about it. Some of the mothers, at the CIF meet, were crying during the race. I guess because it was going so well for us."

Roses growing out of cracks in the concrete? More like birds of paradise blooming from the desert sand.

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