After having no knowledge of the sport, Tulare Union's Celina Vera has earned a college scholarship in cross country
By Andrew Bettencourt
There was quite a welcoming committee when Celina Vera crossed the finish line at the CIF State Cross Country Championships in November.
Vera was greeted by a small army of college coaches from throughout California who were trying to maneuver past each other for Vera's first post-race conversation:
Coach A: "I was here first."
Coach B: "I think I was here first, and I think she's going to talk to me first."
Coach C: "I think she wanted to see me first."
It was with good reason why there were so many college coaches waiting for Vera.
The Tulare Union senior had completed the course at Fresno's Woodward Park in 19 minutes, 4 seconds, the best mark of any Tulare County girls cross country runner. It was also seven seconds faster than her second-place Division II time on the same course in the Central Section Championships a couple of weeks prior to the state meet.
For one of the state's better small-college cross-country programs, landing someone with Vera's prowess would be quite a gem for a coach.
"I thought it was really cool and funny to have all the coaches there fighting on who wanted to talk to me first," Vera said.
A great feeling for someone who hadn't given pursing a college education much of a thought four years ago.
While attending Cherry Avenue Middle School, Vera practically scoffed at a suggestion given to her by Kellie Kusserow, her physical education teacher.
"She talked to me about running cross country in high school. I didn't even know what cross country was," Vera said. "She said it was something I should take seriously, that it could be a way for me to get into college.
"I just laughed. I thought it was crazy. I didn't know anything about cross country and I wasn't even thinking about going to college."
Vera did heed Kusserow's advice, though, and joined the Tulare Union girls cross country team when she enrolled for the 2008 fall semester.
"I decided to give it a shot," Vera said. "I really like running, and I've always been really competitive. Once I joined the team, I really liked everything about it. Coach [Andre] Martinez treated it like one big family."
There wasn't much of a learning curve for Vera to endure on the course.
In her freshman season, Vera took second place to teammate Ashley Tallon at the East Yosemite League Championships. She posted the team's best individual time at the Central Section meet, having a starring role in the Redskins qualifying as a team for the state meet for the first time in school history. Vera also ran the team's top time at the CIF State Championships that season.
The impressive freshman season did more than encourage Vera to keep at it.
It opened up a world that Vera didn't think was possible before cross country — attending college on a cross-country scholarship.
"The lightning bolt moment came when as a team we made it to state [in 2008]. That was my first experience of having a team go that far, and I started to get all these letters from colleges for the girls," Martinez said. "I look at Celina, and I knew with her running background, she had a great opportunity in front of her. I told her, 'These people want to pay you to go to college.'"
Vera had her reasons why she didn't think college could be a reality.
None of her older five siblings had even graduated from high school.
Although she was a fair student, Vera's academic course load was not for a student with serious academic aspirations.
Vera also had to deal with her mom, who was very concerned about her daughter's well-being and was not too fond of Vera taking part in long-distance running.
When she was young, Vera said she would have fainting spells, pointing to scars on the back on her head that were results from her falling.
"She didn't want me to get hurt," Vera said of her mother. "She didn't go to my races, because she didn't want to see me in any pain or she was afraid something may happen to me."
The only thing that happened to Vera in cross country — and the distance races in track and field — was an avalanche of success.
Vera led Tulare Union to its first Central Section girls cross country championship in 2009, as the Redskins took top honors in Division II. Vera finished third overall in the section's Division II race, and she earned Times-Delta/Advance-Register all-Tulare County honors for the first of three straight years.
Accomplishing all this despite her poor dietary habits before a race.
"They call me 'The Iron Gut'," Vera said. "Thirty minutes before a race, I would be hungry and I would get nachos or something, and the coaches are like, 'What in the world are you doing?' I would say, 'I'm hungry' and they're like, 'The race is in 30 minutes, you can't eat like that'. But I just kept eating."
"Iron Gut?, she's trying to clean it up for you," Martinez said with a laugh. "We called her 'The Garbage Disposal'. She was like a live running garbage disposal. Seriously, right before a race she would down a hot dog and nachos. Me and [then Tulare Union boys cross country coach] Scott Pierce would look at each other and just shake our heads. We thought she's going to have to learn her lesson on her own, we've all done it. She'll learn. But you know what? She didn't get sick. She ended up breaking her on record. After that, we were like go with it. Whatever works for you go with it."
While everything was going great on the cross-country circuit, Martinez felt it was time for Vera to get serious in the classroom.
"She just overwhelmed all expectations of what she did with her running. She was a very determined runner, very competitive, but probably her first two years of high school, she was lackadaisical with her education," Martinez said. "We got Ashley [Tallon], the team captain to get [Celina] under her wing, and Ashley was a great influence. She told Celina that if you want us to win as team, you have to start picking it up in the classroom. By not doing well in school, you're not only hurting yourself, you're hurting the team."
And Vera wanted no part of that.
That prompted Vera to have a sit-down conversation with Martinez and Cleo Carrasco, her counselor at Tulare Union, and Vera's academic course load changed considerably. She enrolled in an Advanced Placement Spanish class, and started taking college preparatory courses.
That led to her joining a whole new circle of friends, ones who were determined not just to finish high school but also to pursue a college degree and become working professionals. Vera's grade point average also jumped a full point to the 3.5 range.
Instead of thinking there was no way she was going to college, Vera now changed her mindset to: There was no way she was not going to go to college.
A big milestone to achieving that goal was obtaining support from home.
"My brother really helped me talk to my mom," Vera said. "He knew I wanted to go to college really bad, so he asked my mom, what did she want from me. Did she want me home not doing anything, not having any plans for the future, or did she want me challenging myself by running and going to college.
"She became really supportive after that. She started going to my meets more and more. She's very supportive of my running now."
Maria Curiel, who became Vera's best friend in high school, started talking to her about specific colleges and what schools looked interesting. It was a conversation with Curiel that led Vera to filling out a recruiting form for Cal State East Bay.
Curiel, an AVID student at Tulare Union, was really impressed with the campus in Hayward during a visit, and encouraged Vera to check it out.
Vera sent in a recruiting form to the school, and just five minutes later, she received an e-mail from the Cal State East Bay cross country coach Ralph Jones.
"He said he had seen my times, and my awards, and wanted to talk to me about going to [Cal State] East Bay," Vera said. "I was really impressed."
And Vera and the rest of the Tulare Union cross country program was impressed with Jones and Cal State East Bay.
"We talked to a lot of college coaches, and most of them were heavily invested on their boys teams, not so much with their girls teams. When we talked to [Jones], he was very focused on Celina," Martinez said. "He always talked about Celina. He wanted to invest in her."
When Vera finished that state meet race in November at Woodward Park, her priority wasn't with the coaches clamoring to talk to her, it was with Jones. She wanted to run for him for the Cal State East Bay Pioneers. And just a little over three years after she found out what cross-country running was, Vera had a scholarship to attend college.
Vera will attend Cal State East Bay on a cross-country scholarship that will pay for her tuition.
"It's a big deal here at Tulare Union. Celina is the first girl in cross country to get a scholarship for college," Martinez said. "She loves running, and is probably the smartest runner I've ever coached. She's a tremendous runner and even a better person."
Vera, who was named the Tulare Union senior girls athlete of the year on Thursday, now has something that she didn't have four years ago when she entered Tulare Union — a plan for the future.
Vera, who will run cross country and track at Cal State East Bay, will enroll as a kinesiology major. And she has also developed a goal for her running exploits.
"I'm excited about running the 5,000 [meters) and 10,000 [meters]. I do better at the longer distances. I want to do a marathon, too," Vera said. "My goal is to make it to the Olympic Trials one day."