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Saugus' Samantha Ortega: Improbable upturn

Sophomore runner already draws comparisons to legends of the past

Posted: November 13, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: November 13, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Saugus sophomore Samantha Ortega has quickly risen to become the team’s top runner, and one of the best in the Foothill League. Saugus sophomore Samantha Ortega has quickly risen to become the team’s top runner, and one of the best in the Foothill League.
Saugus sophomore Samantha Ortega has quickly risen to become the team’s top runner, and one of the best in the Foothill League.

Saugus cross country head coach Rene Paragas has never been one to mince words.

Earlier this season, when he was asked about this year’s six-time defending state champion girls cross country team, he described his team as “a bunch of blue collar runners,” and said he didn’t expect anyone to win any individual races.

That was two months ago, and Paragas was being honest.

Then entered sophomore Samantha Ortega, who is putting together one of the more surprising seasons in the history of Saugus’ storied program.

“She’s a dark horse to win a state championship,” Paragas says of the first-year varsity runner.

And yes, he’s still being honest.

Of all the great runners to pass through the Centurions’ cross country program in the past six years, only two have won individual state titles — Shannon Murakami in 2005 and Kaylin Mahoney in 2008.

“I don’t even know how to describe my reaction,” Ortega says of being compared to the former Saugus runners. “It’s just weird and incredible at the same time because one year ago, I didn’t even think I’d be doing this and I didn’t even think I’d be on this team.”

Neither did Paragas. Neither did anyone.

Ortega, who had not run a single competitive race in her life a year ago, already won an individual Foothill League championship on Nov. 1, which came a week after she won the Division II varsity race at the prestigious Mt. San Antonio College Invitational.

She’ll return to that same course on Saturday to compete in the CIF-Southern Section Division II Finals.

Assuming nothing disastrous occurs on Saturday, the heavily favored Centurions will move on to the state meet on Nov. 24 in Fresno, where Ortega will have a chance to join her champion predecessors and lead Saugus to a seventh state title in a row.

“To come out of nowhere with how fast she’s gotten, she’s different in a lot of ways,” said senior teammate Nina Sassano of Ortega. “A lot of these girls gradually get better, but not her. She was pretty good and then she just came out of nowhere.”

In reality, she was plucked out of a her freshman PE class last year.

Her teacher Jeff Hallman, who is also the school’s co-athletic director, noticed her potential as a runner right off the bat.

“She would just be so far out in the rest of the class,” Hallman said. “Even the boys couldn’t keep up. And you could just tell with her, she was very driven and goal oriented.”

So naturally, Hallman introduced Ortega to Coach Paragas.

Ortega had never played organized team sports before, but she was on board with cross country immediately.

“It just makes me happy. Running makes be absolutely happy,” Ortega says. “It makes me so happy that I just want to keep going.”

And she did.

She first joined the team just weeks before the Foothill finals and, after minimal training, she took ninth in the frosh/soph race.

This past spring, she went out for track and field and continued to impress by winning a league title in the JV race of the 3,200-meter.

Along the way, her training habits and unwavering endurance became well known among her teammates.

“It’s amazing to me because I know I’m tired (when I’m training) and she doesn’t get tired,” Sassano says. “It’s amazing how fast she’s gotten and it’s not like she doesn’t work hard to get it. She works really hard.”

Following her strong track season and her impressive times in the summer, Paragas considered Ortegas the team’s No. 1 runner coming into this fall’s cross country season.

Yet even he didn’t expect her to beat out a field of talented, and much more experienced Foothill League runners.

“I had no clue she was going to be this good,” says Paragas, who calls Ortega’s league championship victory one of the biggest upsets in Foothill history.

This week, she’s being asked to run with an even more elite group of runners, but she’s shown the ability to thrive among the best competition.

That’s what separates her from the pack, whether it’s at a CIF championship race or a PE class.

“As a teacher, you see someone who’s obviously very intelligent and she’s very driven to be successful,” Hallman says. “Certainly, no one could have expected her to have the kind of talent she has.”

With the rest of this season and two more years to go after that for Ortega, the only question is how far can she go?
Can she go as far as Murakami, Mahoney or any of the other former all-state runners at Saugus?

Maybe further.

“For a girl that’s only run the sixth race of her career, she might end up being the best out of the whole crew once all is said and done,” Paragas says.



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