Española Valley Cross-Country: There’s Red Gold In Them Thar Hills…

Annabelle {Ortiz} Almager, EVHS Girl’s Cross-Country Head Coach running with some of her team members on Wednesday, July 22. Valley Daily Post image

Española Valley Cross-Country: There’s Red Gold In Them Thar Hills…

By Robert A. Naranjo

ESPAÑOLA – The Valley Daily Post visited Española Valley High School, home of the Sundevils to meet with the cross-country team. Over the next couple of weeks and upcoming season we’ll get to know the girls and boys teams and follow them to Districts and to State. But, first, some background and a poignant story about an EVHS runner that is inspirational based on fact and made school history.

EVHS in 1976 shortly after opening. Courtesy photo

First, a little background. EVHS started out 37 years ago as “Oñate High School” home of the “Conquistadores.” That name was selected by popular vote by the student bodies of Santa Cruz {Crusaders} and the Española High School {Hornets}. A student committee oversaw, along with administrative staff, voting on the name change.

The promise by Administration and the Española School Board to both schools: NO ESPAÑOLA OR SANTA CRUZ IN THE NEW NAME. NO CRUSADERS OR HORNETS AS A SCHOOL MASCOT. Both student bodies loved their school and did not want the other school to be given an unfair advantage in naming it. To give you an idea of the process, look at schools that are being considered for consolidation. A school, especially an elementary school, is sometimes the only thing a community has to point at with pride. People have a hard time letting go of a symbolic and important part of their community.

The vote was held and Oñate High garnered a super majority of the vote of both schools. Both schools bussed students to a section of El Llano south of the Española Airport, which was a large desert-like open space. Shovels were handed out to Española School Board members, administration, staff, students, parents–-anyone who wanted to break ground on “the new high school” named Oñate High.

Albuquerque-based Bradbury and Stamm Construction Company had just started on the foundations for the school when complaints about the name surfaced. The Española School Board, reportedly fearing losing Indian Johnson O’Malley Funding, unilaterally changed the name to Española Valley High School, and thus breaking the promise to both schools that the place names of Santa Cruz or Española would not be used in the new school’s name. Unlike complaints on the original name, complaints about breaking the promise fell on deaf ears and EVHS, home of the Sundevils remained.

Oñate High was later chosen as a name for a school in Las Cruces and in an ironic twist of fate, local churches later waged a campaign against the mascot name of “Sundevils” saying it was inappropriate and offensive. That also went nowhere. Arizona State also filed complaints about the rendering of the mascot which was too similar to theirs they claimed. What’s in a name? Apparently, a lot!

In the Fall of 1976, the year of the Bicentennial of the United States, the new high school opened. Fall sports got underway, with football practicing at Hunter Field at the old Española High School. Cross-country had hills to run in that were alive with the sound of music! Well, music blasting from the parking lot of the high school that is. Del Valdez was the coach. All sports except, maybe wrestling, which quickly garnered State Champions under Coach MacErnie, had mediocre seasons for many years.

Then in mid-eighties Lawrence Naranjo, a former Santa Cruz High School Crusader, four-sport letterman, All District Cross-Country in 2AAA, and ran cross-country for NMHU on scholarship and nearly missed All-American status at the NAIA Cross-Country Nationals in Kenosha, Wisconsin, became the Boys and Girls Cross-Country Coach at EVHS.

Coach Naranjo, coached the Sundevil runners until his retirement three years ago. Within a few years, the cross-country team had built a name for themselves, both boys and girls. Consider that in 1976, there was one girl on the cross-country team, Kathy Mazanares. Coach Valdez and Kathy started something great and Coach Naranjo took it from there.

In 1988, Coach Naranjo’s girls cross-country team had a runner that appeared as if she couldn’t be a major threat to anyone, petite, with regular muscle tone–she looked like someone who was out just to participate for the fun of it. The old saying, “never judge a book by its cover” never rang more true. This young-looking runner already had turned heads. In the previous year, as a sophomore, she had run like the wind, her light frame seemingly running like “poetry in motion” and denied glory on an official’s judgment call.

It was the NM AAAA State Track Championships, and the 32OO meters race. Unknown to anyone, the young runner was a little anxious as the runners lined up. “Coach Naranjo had instructed to me not to cut to the inside lane too quickly. But I was little nervous and I did,” she told the Valley Daily Post. The gun report started the race and she literally sprinted out like it was 22O and took the 32OO easily.

Then came the track official who said she had cut into the inside lane too early and “clipped” another runner and the 1988 State Individual Track Championship in the 32OO was taken away from her. Coach Naranjo protested the official’s ruling and produced video that proved that his runner had not clipped anyone in the race and although a little early moving in from the outside to the inside lane while running like the wind, the video evidence went nowhere and the ruling stood. It ended there. But, had it? 

Unknown to anyone except maybe Coach Naranjo and her teammates that 32OO individual state champion honor that had been taken away from her put the “Eye of the Tiger” in this runner who vowed to herself that in the Fall of 1988, during the cross-country season, she wouldn’t even wait for track in the spring of 1989, she would redeem herself before then.

Fast forward to the State cross-country Championships, Milne Stadium, Albuquerque, NM, Girls AAAA Division, {then all NM large schools participated in AAAA}. Coach Naranjo’s girl’s cross-country team at the starting line with many other top schools in the state. About 17 minutes and some seconds later, excited yelling and the roar of the crowd made everyone in the stands look to the north side of the football field’s track. There, all alone, in first place entering the track for the last 22O yards, was a rather petite runner but clearly wearing red and gold. The runner continued and sprinted the 1OO yards to demonstrate she still had gas in her tank. The entire crowd continued cheering for her as no other runner entered the track in second place until this Sundevil runner reached the finish line, meaning she was at least 22O yards ahead of the second place runner in the AAAA race. Coach Naranjo nodded approvingly and was smiling as if to say, “I knew she’d take this race,” as he told his new Champion to walk around a little to warm down.

There was no official who saw an infraction that day. Conversely, what everyone witnessed that day in the Fall of 1988 in Albuquerque was the first State cross-country Meet Individual Champion in AAAA for Española, boys or girls. And that included the old Santa Cruz and Española High Schools. Just how significant? It hasn’t been done since on an individual basis, but something happened with the girl’s team later with Coach Naranjo’s 1991 girl’s cross-country squad. History was made that year, too. But that’s another story that the Valley Daily Post will bring to you at another time.

And who was that young 1988 State AAAA Girl’s Cross-Country Champion? Many of you already know, but for those who don’t, she is ANNABELLE ORTIZ. Who? Annabelle {Ortiz} Almager, who is currently EVHS Girl’s Cross-Country Head Coach and was elected to the Española School Board in the last election. Oh that Annabelle! SHE was State Champ? Indeed, she was.

There was red gold “in them thar hills,” after all.