By Bill Sheehan
Competing for Troy High School in Fullerton, Jorge Sanchez was one of the top distance runners in the Orange County Freeway League. But he received little attention from college recruiters.
"I really wasn't a very good runner. The league wasn't that great, and my times didn't match up with the region's top runners," said Sanchez. "I knew I wasn't that fast because when I got to the CIF meet, I got killed."
Sanchez, who was accepted to Cal State Fullerton during his senior year, contacted Titans cross country and track and field head coach John Elders. He expressed an interest in joining the teams but was told that his times were too slow. "The kid was undertrained in high school. His times were so far off our walk-on standards," said Elders.
That might have been the end of the story. But Alex Tebbe, the Titans cross country assistant coach, heard about Sanchez's running potential and work ethic from Mt. San Antonio College coach Daniel Ozan. "I told Alex, 'If you want to give him a summer workout program, go ahead,' " said Elders, who is in his 32nd year guiding the Fullerton programs. "Jorge still gives me a hard time about what we put him through."
Sanchez received a phone call on his high school graduation day. "Coach Tebbe said he thought I had potential," he said. "He gave me a training program and said I could try out for the team in the fall."
He trained religiously during the summer, occasionally working out with established Titan runners. Sanchez aced his tryout and earned a spot on the team. "As soon as he started serious training, he began to develop right away," said Elders.
He was given a full scholarship after his first year and has become a mainstay in both cross country and track and field. On Saturday, the Titans will compete in the Big West Conference Cross Country Championships at UC Riverside's Agricultural Operations Course.
Each Big West team will have nine participants. Their first five finishers are counted in the scoring. The women's 6K begins at 8:45 a.m., with the men's 8K starting at 9:30 a.m. Tickets are $6.
The Titans men's team, which won the Mark Covert Classic in Brea and the UC Riverside Highlander Invitational this season, has finished third in their past two conference finals.
Titans 'right in the mix' at Big West finals, coach says
The Highlander Invitational was held on the same course that the Big West Championships will take place. "Our team is right in the mix," said Elders. "Our times are very comparable to how Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] performed on the Riverside course in September."
"Everyone performed well at the Highlander Invitational except me. I had a bad day," said Sanchez, who was the fifth finisher for Fullerton and wound up 21st overall. He said the team has struggled to find consistent fourth- and fifth-place finishers but has been bolstered by the emergence of Costa Mesa freshman Alexis Garcia, who finished 19th overall at the Highlander meet.
The 21-year-old Sanchez struggled with a right Achilles heel injury earlier this season. But at the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational this month, Sanchez was the top Titans performer. Competing against runners from Auburn, LSU, Kansas State and other schools in the Gold Race, he finished 35th overall and was named the Big West Conference Men's Cross Country Athlete of the Week.
The versatile Sanchez is a standout on the Titans men's track and field team. At the Big West Championships last spring, he took third place in both the 5,000 meters and 3K steeplechase for runner-up Fullerton. He also scored points when the Titans won Big West track and field titles in 2017 and 2018.
The 5-foot-10 runner has personal bests of 4:01.11 in the 1,500 meters and 14:40.17 in the 5,000 meters, and his 8:56.23 is the second-best 3K steeplechase time in school history.
Sanchez competes in cross country as a senior at Troy High School in Fullerton. He earned a spot of Cal State Fullerton's team after improving his times and excelling in a tryout.
Coach praises Sanchez for his running efficiency
"Jorge is very dedicated, and it has been very easy to coach him," said Tebbe. "He has gotten stronger and faster from a biomechanics standpoint. When everyone is tired, he remains smooth under pressure. He is very smart tactically, and that allows him to double back in other events during track season.
"Whenever I talk to high school recruits in steeplechase, he is the primary example how you can improve, believe in yourself and work hard."
Sanchez gives a lot of credit to Tebbe. "He was the first one to see potential in me and I'm only here because of Coach Alex," he said. "Every workout that he gives me has purpose. I think the whole team feels like that."
Sam Pimentel, a former cross country teammate, recalled Sanchez's start at Fullerton. "We have similar backgrounds. Like me, he didn't have the high school times and had to try out for the team. He had to go through a lot of barriers, but he's become a top-five guy in cross country and a top performer in the steeplechase."
"He's smart in how he listens to and treats his body, and that has paid off with his consistency," said Pimentel, a redshirt senior from Anaheim who will compete in distance races for the track team in 2020. "One of Jorge's biggest strengths is his ability to shake off a bad race – he's already thinking about his next race."
A leader by example, with a dry sense of humor
Sanchez has a dry sense of humor that can be an acquired taste. "As a teammate, he brings a lot of laughs," said teammate Demi Marine, a senior distance runner from West Covina. "He's a team leader. He makes jokes, but he gets serious when he needs to be. And if you can make him laugh, you can make it in life."
"I can be very sarcastic at times," said Sanchez. "But it's important to know when I am serious and when I am messing around. I'm not really vocal, so I prefer to be a leader by example."
Born in Tijuana, he moved to Fullerton as a 6-year-old and took up running as a sophomore at Troy High. During that same year, it dawned on him that his lack of U.S. citizenship was a big obstacle to long-range success. "I was really stressed about it. I cried. I had put so much effort into studying and getting good grades and realized it was all for nothing," he said.
He then applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA is an option for undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before age 16. Although DACA doesn't provide a pathway to lawful permanent residence, it does provide temporary protection from deportation, work authorization and the ability to apply for a Social Security number. DACA has been challenged in court, and a Supreme Court decision on the program is not expected until next year.
"These types of opportunities don't come very often. It has been a big blessing," said Sanchez, who said he is monitoring DACA developments but staying focused on his schooling and other activities.
His parents, Jesus Sanchez and Bertha Velazquez, attend his cross country and track events that are held in Southern California. His father works as a kitchen carpenter, and his mother is a mattress seamstress. He has a younger sister, Jasmine.
Sanchez will earn a degree in civil engineering in 2020. He is interested in transportation systems and enjoyed taking a surveying class in his major. He plans to do an internship next fall.
"I never worry about his academics," said head coach Elders. "He has a colorful personality with a quirky sense of humor, but he takes care of business."
Jorge Sanchez, a Cal State Fullerton senior, will receive a degree in civil engineering in 2020. He is interested in transportation systems and plans to do an internship next fall.
Sanchez is skilled in multiple languages
Fluent in English and Spanish, Sanchez often surprises people by speaking Chinese. He took Chinese language classes both in high school and college.
He enjoys watching films, especially the works of Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. But it's music that stirs his passions. He and a high school friend, Matthew Gonzalez, have formed a duo called The Pacific Parade. Sanchez said they play rock music as well as more mellow tunes. They are currently recording but have yet to perform in a public concert.
"It's a guitar-based band," Sanchez said, who is seldom seen without his sunglasses. "He plays lead guitar and does the recording, producing and mixing. I write everything and primarily play rhythm guitar and bass, with a little drums and keyboards. Matthew sees it as a learning experience for maybe something bigger. I see it more as having fun."
Sanchez is known for pumping up his teammates before cross country and track competitions by loudly invoking lyrics from The Doors' song "When the Music's Over." His rallying cry is,
"We want the world and we want it … Now!"
"Before races, it just comes out of me. I use song lyrics to inspire others," said Sanchez.
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