A Path of Victory

In October 2002, the Denver West cross country team did what no other athletic team at inner-city Denver West High School haddone in 43 years: It won a state championship.

“We are the team like William Wallace in Braveheart,” said Louis Cruz, head coach and Young Life area director. “We didn’t have the greatest weapons, but we had nine guys who had the desire and the passion to win a state title.” And win they did, convincingly.

In a cross country competition, the team with the lowest score wins. Each runner’s individual place in the meet is his score, and the top five scores from each team comprise the team’s total score. West, which topped second-place Cherry Creek High School 105-164, was led by sophomore Aden Ahmed, junior Jesse Romero, junior Frank Medina, junior Daniel Trujillo and freshman Mohammed Ige. Junior Tobby Gonzales and senior Joe Cruz also competed as part of the seven-member team.

But even more impressive than their victory, all seven members of the varsity team are involved in the Young Life club Cruz leads for West. Cruz said these runners are a key to the club’s strength, and they often bring their other friends to club.

Cruz, a 1989 graduate of West, has taken six of the runners to Wildhorse Canyon and one other to Snow Wolf Lodge. Five of the runners have a relationship with Christ.

“Camp was one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had,” team member Jesse said. “Coach was with us, and when we’re practicing, he’s all about business, but off the field he wants us to bond together. To have a bond in that aspect of life was amazing.”

For Cruz, watching the guys on the team grow spiritually was more satisfying than a state title. Cruz said he based the entire season on prayer, asking that each workout would be positive and each race led by God. Times together outside of workouts were key, he said.

“There have been many times that I’ve said, ‘Practice is over, and now we’re going to talk about life,’” Cruz said. “We’d have a little ‘life lesson’ right after workout or at Campaigners on Friday mornings, and we’d talk about the things we take for granted.”

One of those things really hit home for the team.Two summers ago, a student who had attended a trip to Snow Wolf was killed while riding his skateboard. “We all knew him and were close to his sister, too,” Jesse said. “We talked about how short life is.” These times together helped the team learn a little more about life, who Jesus Christ is as well as bond as a team.

The state meet is a day none of them will forget.

“I had been training for four years to get to this point and win a state championship,” Jesse said. “Going into the meet was pretty scary because everyone was expecting us to win. The greatest moment was when they called our names out at the awards ceremony.”

“For me, there were three levels,” Cruz said. “Before the meet, it was all business. They knew that going off the bus. The kids knew that if they did their job, they would win.

 “During the race at the two-mile mark, Coach Barnes and I saw our guys, and I broke down crying because I knew we had won. Not many people know that I cried.

“And afterward, it was a very personal thing for me, but to break down and cry before a ton of adults and faculty at Denver West … and for one moment this team was praised for something that West High School hadn’t seen for 43 years. It was beyond any feeling and emotion I’ve ever encountered. It’s something I’ll never forget. There was a lot of emotion that day.”

For Jesse, the spiritual lessons parallel what happened on the cross country course. “All the pain we went through was worth it, and to think that Jesus Christ went through 10 times more than we did,” he said. “It couldn’t have worked out any better. We all grew together.”

Cruz, who was named Colorado Cross Country Coach of the Year by the Rocky Mountain News, said he and Coach Barnes would do anything for their team.

“On my desk in my houseI have a picture of the kids celebrating [after the state [championship],” he said. “That’s who I am. That’s Young Life. That’s been my heart, and those kids know my heart. I’d go to battle for them on and off the cross country course.”