December 02, 2008

His voice cracked and his eyes welled up. One by one Jim Duarte, the boys' cross-country coach at Barstow High in the Southern California desert and architect of six state titles, the most recent a mere few minutes old, ticked off the names of his team.

Isaac Chavez. Andrew Romano. Ian Barba. Joshua Gomez. Jeremy Trujillo. Galen Miller. A.J. Kanczel. Seniors, all of them.

Then, silence. Gripping the microphone, Duarte swallowed hard and fought back tears as he addressed the standing-room-only crowd gathering in the awards tent.

"This is tough," Duarte said after a lengthy pause. "Some people kind of know it already -- this is my last year up here."

And with that, a dynasty was left behind.

Four straight CIF Division III state championships. Six in eight years, including the one Barstow grabbed by the throat last weekend at Fresno's Woodward Park. The Aztecs had four runners finish the 5,000-meter course in 16 minutes or less, with the foursome all placing in the top 19, and their team score of 70 and team time of 78:52 easily outdistanced the next closest schools -- Moraga Campolindo (101:79:45) and Petaluma (109:79:55).

Besides boasting the third-most state titles since the state meet began in 1987, behind Jesuit (Sacramento) and McFarland, both of which have nine, Barstow has five of the nine fastest D-III team times at the state finals. All under Duarte, who took over the program in 1994.

No wonder the small Barstow traveling party was in such shock when Duarte dropped the retirement bombshell. Because the Aztecs, hailing from a diverse city of 23,575 derisively known as a dusty backwater bathroom stop on the way to Las Vegas, made their mark under him. They helped change perceptions of their sleepy but proud hometown by commanding a statewide respect never seen before in California running circles.

"The end of an era," said Barstow mayor-elect Joe Gomez, who ran recreationally for Duarte in junior high. "You're sad for the program but happy for him because he made a difference in so many people's lives, including mine. He went out a champion.

"Of course, he always gives credit to everyone else but it's all on him."

The mayor-elect has a vision, and it involves Latino actor and activist Edward James Olmos portraying the understated Duarte in a movie about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of the underdog Aztecs and their hometown. Think Running Brave meets Stand and Deliver.

"(Duarte is) like another dad, he's always on top of us ... teaches us a lot of discipline," said Chavez, whose time of 15:15 placed him second individually. "If he wasn't our coach, we'd all probably be out drinking and smoking."

Instead, Chavez is looking at possibly joining former Barstow teammate Anthony Solis and running at Chico State next year.

It might be politically incorrect to say how refreshing it is to see youngsters running and training in the streets of Barstow rather than simply running the streets, but associate principal Scott Godfrey nods his head in agreement. Because with just 6.2 percent of Barstow's population having a Bachelor's Degree at the 2000 census and a median household income of less than $42,000, temptations can be great. Enter Duarte, who will continue to teach history on campus.

"We have the poorest of the poor and doctor's kids in the same classrooms," said Godfrey, whose wife is Duarte's niece, lending even more of a small-town feel to the proceedings. "Some of the negatives of our town, the demographics, the reputation, he turns those things into positives for the guys. He creates a bubble for them within the bubble.

"I seek them out on campus. They're not brash, they're just, they're champions, and they carry themselves like that everywhere. They've given us, our school, our town, a good name and it all emanates from coach."

Yet the 60-year-old Duarte, who ran four years at UCLA as a walk-on after graduating from Barstow High in 1966, is so unassuming, so humble, it's hard to imagine him signing off on such a project as a movie, unless his runners were the ones featured, not him.

"You always hope and pray the kids rise to the occasion," said Duarte, who had his team give fist-bumps rather than handshakes to reduce the risk of spreading germs and catching colds, "and what you're doing works."

Then again, Hollywood might have a hard time finding him and the Aztecs.

At the state meet, while scores of other schools announced their presence with swank digs of fancy color-coordinated tents with monogrammed canopies proclaiming their accomplishments, you needed a map and compass to find Barstow's encampment. It was the one on a lonely hill, under a solitary tree, an ice chest and a few folding chairs serving as its sentry.

It was such a Spartan existence. So unassuming. So humble. So Barstow. So ... Duarte.

Paul Gutierrez, a senior staff writer at The Sacramento Bee, is a native of Barstow and a 1988 graduate of Barstow High.

You May Like