From Worst to First

Junior varsity runner Joey Small.

After the Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles crosscountry team won the Westside League finals on Nov. 6, a competitorwas puzzled. “You guys were so bad last year,” the rival asked RaphyHulkower, 15. “What happened?”

What happened, besides talent and hard work, was that the Orthodoxrunners were under an unusual amount of pressure.

Recently, YULA officials battled with the CaliforniaInterscholastic Federation to switch one heat of the areapreliminaries from Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, to Thursday, Nov.13. At first, CIF leaders refused, insisting that they could notaccommodate the special needs of every group. But when other schoolssupported YULA, the team won its appeal.

“So we know we have to make an impression,” says Hulkower, a wiryteen-ager wearing a school uniform and a black kippah. “We can’texpect CIF to change a 20-year tradition for a mediocre team.”

The YULA squad, however, is anything but mediocre. It has come along way since the 1996 season, when “we were the worst in theleague,” coach Jason Ablin says.

At the time, cross country was regarded mostly as conditioningpractice for members of the school’s league championship basketballteam. Enter Ablin and his new assistant coach, Tom Fitzgerald, whoonce trained for the Olympic trials in cross country. The duo began arigorous, methodical training program for the seven varsity and some10 junior varsity runners.

For two hours after each 10-hour school day, the teens ran in thedark over hill and dale, over dirt and sand, from Temescal Canyon toMalibu beach. They did speed work at a track in Beverly Hills.

Before long, the top boys were running a mile in just over 5minutes — and sustaining that for three miles.

“I was surprised by how good I was,” says Joshua Hess, 16, whoruns the team’s top mile.

The work paid off this season, as YULA won three Westside meetsand then the league finals. After the Nov. 6 race, the runnersdavened mincha not far from the finish line.

As The Journal went to press, they were preparing for a gruelingheat of the area preliminaries on Nov. 13 (tune in next week for theoutcome).

But regardless of how well they do, YULA’s runners will not beable to go on to the Southern California finals on Nov. 22. That’sbecause YULA officials couldn’t convince the CIF to move the Saturdayrace to a Thursday.

Hess finds this “frustrating and disappointing,” but he’sdetermined to run his best.

“We’ll take things race by race,” says Moshe Adler, a teamcaptain. “If we do well, we’ll have a good argument that CIF shouldaccommodate us next year.”