By Bill Sheehan
Sandra Flores' favorite moment as a Cal State Fullerton student-athlete came last spring when the Titans won their first-ever Big West Conference Women's Track and Field Championship.
"All of us were so excited to finally win. It was tough. There were a lot of nerves, a lot of pressure," said Flores. She finished fourth in the 800 meters and sixth in the 1500 meters at the finals, scoring eight points for her team. Her 2:09:50 time in the 800 was a career best.
Flores, a senior from Indio, and her teammates have an opportunity Saturday to make history again. They will try to capture the school's first-ever Big West women's cross-country title. The conference finals will be held at UC Riverside's Agricultural Operations Course, with the women's 6K starting at 8:45 a.m. and the men's 8K following at 9:30 a.m. Tickets are $6.
Each Big West team will have nine participants. The first five finishers from each team are counted in the scoring.
"I'm really nervous, but I'm really excited to compete in the Big West meet," said the 5-foot-6 Flores, who is in her fourth year of cross country. "Our team is looking really strong. Sam Huerta and Trinity Ruelas, our top two runners, are doing really well. And our numbers three through five are killing it. Hopefully, we will bring home that ring."
Titans peaking now, coach declares
John Elders, who is in his 32nd year guiding the Fullerton cross-country and track and field programs, said his runners are peaking at the right time. The Titan men's and women's team both notched wins this month at the UC Riverside Highlander Invitational. The women dominated their competition, placing six runners in the top 12.
"If they duplicate what they did at the Highlander Invitational, at a minimum they will be right in the mix," said Elders, who noted the Big West finals will be held on the same Riverside course. "We have to give Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo] the respect it deserves, and UC Davis is up and coming. No one will give us anything. My message to our team is to have fun, compete hard and execute a good race."
Flores agrees with Elders about Cal Poly, which won both the men's and women's titles last year, "Cal Poly is always a real tough team to beat. Last year, we were six points away from the championship. This year, we are a stronger team. We'll be right there, but we know it won't come easy."
While her teammates got off to a good start by winning the Mark Covert Classic in Brea and finishing second at the University of San Diego Invitational, Flores struggled. "Every year is the same for me – I start slowly but end pretty strongly. My training for the Big West finals is going well," said Flores, who wound up 11th overall at the Highlander Invitational and was her team's fifth-place finisher.
"Sandra always comes around in the second half," said Elders. "Highlander gives her the mojo for the conference meet. She has improved every year, particularly last season when she was all-conference in cross country and placed well at the conference track finals.
"She does get nervous before racing. But she is very competitive person. Sandra runs at a high level and rarely has a bad performance."
An Indio native, Sandra Flores expects to graduate next year with a degree in child and adolescent development. Photo credit Bill Sheehan.
After shaky start, a strong relationship ensues
Elders and Flores both acknowledge they had a bumpy relationship at the outset. "My freshman year we got off to a rough start. We both have strong personalities," said Flores. "We had to work through some stuff," recalled Elders. But both have a mutual admiration society going on now.
"She is a great kid. I'm really proud how much she has grown as a person and a runner. Through the process, we have developed a strong relationship," said Elders, who often checks in with Flores to see how she is doing. "He's like a second dad to me. He is a really good coach who cares a lot," she said.
Flores said she is very close with her father, Steve. "My dad is my number one supporter," she said. Steve works in construction while Flores' mother, Patty, works in administration at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison in Blythe. Her mother shuttles between Indio and Blythe, where Flores' maternal grandparents live.
"I'm extremely proud of Sandra," said her father. "She is working hard, with her school, her sports and her part-time job. I was a little bit concerned that it was all too much, but she's been doing it for a few years and seems to be handling things pretty well.
"She has always been a very competitive person, from the time she was a little girl. Sandra believes in working out to her fullest. She runs as hard as she can and doesn't leave anything behind," he said.
Flores, who has an older sister, Melissa, played soccer, flag football and travel softball in middle school. That's when she first got a taste of cross country. As a fifth-grader, she competed in running meet at Mt. San Antonio College and was the only athlete from her school to win a medal.
At La Quinta High School, she focused on cross country and track and field. She was All-Desert Valley League in track and field and received many letters from colleges.
"At the time, I didn't know much about collegiate running or coaches and training programs, Flores said. "I visited Fullerton and really liked the campus. The only coach who sent me a personal email was John Elders. When he reached out to me, I told myself, 'OK. I'm coming here. I'm sold.' "
Flores competes in cross country as a senior at La Quinta High School. She was All-Desert Valley League in track and field.
Roomed with Samantha Huerta as a freshman
Flores and Samantha Huerta, one of the school's greatest-ever long-distance runners, were roommates as freshmen in the dorms. For Flores, it's like having the ultimate training partner.
"I think it's awesome we run every single workout together," said Flores. " Individually, she is such a great runner. Sam is very unselfish, and she encourages and motivates everyone on the team, which is very cool."
Huerta, who in 2019 was named the Big West Women's Track Athlete of the Year and earned NCAA Second-Team All-America honors, greatly values her friendship with Flores.
"I love Sandra. She is one of my best friends. We have so much fun. She is really an enjoyable person to be around," said Huerta, who won the 800-meter and 1,500-meter races at last year's Big West track and field finals. "She is a very determined girl when she sets her mind to things. I really like that about her.
"During aggressive workouts, when we are tired and beat up, we push each other to the line. It's really fun training with her stride for stride. When it really counts, Sandra can step up and handle the pressure. She performs really well in conference and regional meets. We know that when it comes to this time of the season, she is ready."
Flores is majoring in child and adolescent development and plans to receive her degree next year. She has done an internship at an elementary after-school program and observations in special education. She said she really enjoys working with infants but is still undecided on a career path.
He 21-year-old works at Karl Strauss Brewing Company in Anaheim. She is an expo/food runner, assisting servers with bringing food from the chef to the customers' tables.
Although she was born and raised in Indio, Flores has never attended the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, which is held each spring in her hometown. "There has always been a track event -- both in high school and college – the same weekend as Coachella," she said. "The meets have always more important. But going to the concert someday remains a goal of mine."
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