Cross Country Dynasty

Champions (l to r): Miriam Canales-Ortega, Lorena Garcia (being held with plaque), Ashley Carrera, Violet Tipich, Dana Cameron, Bronwyn Bunnell, Danielle Nunez (photo by John Mattera)

San Pedro’s Lorena Garcia and Ashley Carreraended their L.A. City Section Cross Country careers the same way they began them – as champions.

But this is nothing new for head coach Bruce Thomson and the San Pedro Girls Cross Country team. They’ve won three of the last four City titles as the program continues to pave its way to the “dynasty” category.

Thomson took over head coaching duties at San Pedro High School in 1998 and in those 15 years he has done almost nothing but win: 10 L.A. City titles in 15 years.

San Pedro High School Principal, Jeanette Stevens says Coach Thomson has created an environment that “cultivates success year after year.”

“Coach Thompson is a cornerstone of our program here at San Pedro High School,” she says. “He is here everyday and he really is involved in the program in a capacity that fosters success. We are very proud of him and his accomplishments. He is definitely top-notch, we have observed his talent and his ability to connect with kids. He is a superstar.”

Head coach Bruce Thomson (bottom center) is surrounded by his runners (top l to r) Bunnell, Tipich, Nunez and Carrera, and is flanked by Erica Hovind (bottom l) and Coach Sally Leonhart (bottom r). (photo by Jenna Bunnell)

Thomson has led his Pirate runners to not only L.A. City titles, but to college. During his 15 years leading the program, he has seen dozens of his girls go on to compete at the collegiate level.

“Our girls train very hard,” Thomson says. “It just didn’t happen that you win, the girls have to make commitments and sacrifices, and it starts in the summer. This program has seen many successful athletes go on to college, but that is because these girls know what it takes and they work hard to make their dreams come true.”

Thomson has produced great runners like Valerie Flores, who became an All-American at UCLA, and past Individual City Champions include Pablo Rosales and Laura Delgado. In addition, the Pirates currently have two runners on scholarship at Loyola Marymount, and that is in addition to the countless other girls who have gone on to run at the collegiate level.

Stevens says it is important to the administration to produce college-bound students, adding that it is a bonus to produce collegiate athletes.

“We have talented athletes and talented coaches who have the ability to promote and advocate for the kids for continued play after high school,” she says. “We want coaches and have coaches that foster the vision for the collegiate level. We are really a community that not only engages in a strong academic program, but athletics. And our community supports that and wants to see our athletes and teams succeed and prosper.”

But Jenna Bunnell, mother of Bronwyn Bunnell, who was a freshman on the team this season, says it’s more than just the girls and their effort, it is “the program that Coach Thomson created.”

“His program is amazing,” she says. “He really treats these girls with respect and pulls out the absolute best from them. He preps them to be successful from the start, and not just successful for their time at San Pedro, but in college and beyond.”

Eddie Nunez, father of Danielle Nunez, a runner on the team, puts it this way, “If Thomson was a football coach, he would be God.”

Thomson doesn’t agree, but says his Cross Country teams have some of the best athletes at San Pedro High School, and he would like to see his athletes “get the respect and attention they deserve.”

“Cross Country is one of the tougher sports to train for,” he says. “It is not a game and the girls don’t get a lot of credit for it. Our kids train all year round, they do great in the classroom, and I would say they are some of the best kids we have in school. I would say that goes for most Cross Country programs.”

And excelling in the classroom is exactly what his athletes do, Stevens says.

“San Pedro High School as a whole has the highest GPA in the Marine League,” she says. “And when you look at the girls Cross Country program, you will see that these girls, all of them, are top students and top athletes. They push themselves to excel physically in sports and mentally in the classroom.”

Thomson says Cross Country athletes have always been good students and that is because the sport is more “intrinsically motivated than football or basketball.”

“To succeed in it you have to be consistent in training,” he says. “You have to work hard in every area and the only person pushing you to do it is you. This isn’t a game these girls are playing, this is about pushing themselves individually and that shows in the classroom, as well.”

Bunnell, a proud parent and a teacher herself, says the parents see the respect Thomson gives to their children. She says he is a leader when it comes to both academics and sports.

“He built this program – it is a dynasty,” she says. “And for Coach Thomson it is about more than just having a successful high school team or career, it is about having a successful life. He looks at the bigger picture. We are proud of the girls, but more importantly this is about the success of the coaches and the program they have built.”

For Pirate runners Garcia and Carrera, this season was their last, but it also saw them win their third City championship after previously winning in their freshman and junior years.

“Once I knew we won I was so happy,” Garcia said in an interview with the Daily Breeze. “This is our senior year and we wanted to win this for our coaches and our team.”

Thomson said of the senior captains – Garcia who was All-City four straight years and Carrera who was All-City her junior and senior year – they were hardworking girls, they pushed themselves and they led by example.

“These two were leaders,” he says. “We had 40 girls on the Cross Country team this year, and there are only seven spots – there is no bench, this is a competitive sport. These girls pushed it to the limit every single day. I am so proud of them.”

Stevens says it is “exciting to have a championship program year after year – it really is a feather in our cap.”

“We have an amazing athletic program here at our school, and when I think of programs that are at the top, the Cross Country team is there. The coaches are top-notch, the athletes are top notch, and they really push each other to ensuring success each season – it is exciting, and I am proud.”

Thomson, a UCLA alum who didn’t make the Cross Country or Track team, started his coaching career at Hamilton High School, his alma mater. He didn’t find success in his 14 years of coaching there, but says “success comes when it all comes together and that is exactly what is happening here at San Pedro.”

“When I started helping out at Hamilton, I really enjoyed it,” he says. “I got into teaching and coaching and loved it. And at this point in my career, I find myself very proud. It is really rewarding, we have had a lot of talent come through the program, great support from the Administration and community – it all came together.” spt

Fixing The Pirate

Janice Olivieri photographed at San Pedro High School (photos by John Mattera)

The sun and rain wreaked havoc on what should have been the pride of San Pedro High School. A historic statue of the school’s mascot, a grand pirate, had seen better days. The hands should have been holding a sword and a hook, but instead were just sad stumps, cut off at the wrists. Holes throughout his body and deteriorating feet made him a spectacle. The 21-foot tall fiberglass statue was the victim of natural elements or vandalism, probably both.

The checkered past of the statue goes back close to fifty years and various locations. It was posted at the Harbor for many years, then in front of a store called The Sea for a time. It was then put in storage until nearly ten years ago, when the San Pedro Boosters worked to get it restored and placed on the grounds of SPHS. Yet, without upkeep, and close to a decade of deterioration, the pirate was in need of some serious TLC. San Pedro High School student and Girl Scout, Janice Olivieri, would be the one to give it the care it needed and restore it to a symbol of pride.

“It was terrible before,” says Olivieri. “During football games, the away team walks right by it and it was embarrassing, not intimidating.”

Olivieri had been looking for a project to earn her Girl Scout Gold Award, the highest honor a Girl Scout can receive, equivalent to an Eagle Scout honor in the Boy Scouts.

“You need at least 80 hours of community service to even get it,” says Olivieri. The guidelines alone for the award proposal are over twenty pages. “I had been brainstorming and thinking about doing a drama camp for kids, or maybe some sort of eco-green project.”

Olivieri realized that restoring the statue would be a way for her to earn her Gold Award while giving back to her school.

Of course, she didn’t realize that restoring the statue would take well over the required 80 hours of community service. It would take closer to 100 hours, and nine months of physical and mental work.

The project also cost a few thousand dollars, which was put up by a group of SPHS alumni who graduated from the school in the 1940s. Current SPHS principal, Jeanette Stevens, put Olivieri in touch with the 1940s group who agreed to donate money for the restoration.

“We met Janice and her mother and Janice went through all the background planning for the project,” says Chuck Norton, member of the 1940s alumni. “Janice wasn’t a regular student, she’s an honor student and a real go-getter.”

Olivieri proceeded to put all of her free time into the project. She patched holes and found help where she could. Her neighbor worked on surfboards, so she enlisted him to help in repairing the fiberglass feet. Olivieri’s mother, Shari Elders, spent almost every weekend with Olivieri assisting her mission. They used about 60 pounds of fix-all, countless gallons of paint and a cherry picker to reach the higher parts.

The newly renovated Pirate Statue

It was a lot of hard work, but Olivieri and Elders laugh remembering one day when the cherry picker conked out… with Olivieri close to twenty feet in the air.

“I was just stuck there by the pirate’s shoulder for an hour,” says Olivieri, who had to wait for maintenance from the cherry picker company to arrive. “The whole football team was practicing, so they were just running by me and saying hi as I stood there stuck.”

Elders had a positive attitude about Olivieri’s project from the beginning, but not everyone had such high hopes for the pirate.

“It was painful sometimes,” says Elders. “To have her working on it and people would stop and say, ‘Wow, that’s a lot of work, why don’t you just tear it down.’ It was like having a losing team and just thinking, Okay, we really have to win this one.”

Olivieri kept her head up, despite the negativity. “Most of your life, you have people saying, ‘You can do whatever you put your mind to,’ and I just knew I had to keep pushing and tell myself, ‘I can do this, I can fix the pirate.’”

Spending her weekends and school holidays painting, Olivieri did have moments when she wished it could be finished sooner. “There were times when I was like, every single day, I’m so sick of seeing this pirate,” says Olivieri. “Why didn’t I just do a camp? But it was completely worth it in the end.”

The football game just before homecoming, Olivieri was recognized for all her hard work in fully restoring the pirate to his previous grandeur. Elders can’t help but get emotional as she remembers the event.

“They made an announcement and I was behind her and I could see all these people standing and cheering for her and what she had done,” says Elders. “It makes me really proud.”

The group of alumni who raised and donated money for the project created a fund for others to donate to, as well. The fund will provide for upkeep of the statue and ensure that Olivieri’s hard work is maintained.

Olivieri will graduate next May, and her time will be over as a San Pedro High School student. But the mark she’s made won’t soon be erased. There is a 21-foot tall, eye-patched pirate, gleaming with fresh paint, who will ensure that Olivieri’s dedication won’t be forgotten. spt

New Campus Offers New Problems

(photos by John Mattera)

Students who left behind 75-year-old San Pedro High School to attend its new $80 million annex at Angel’s Gate that officially opened in August say they have faced a myriad of emotions leaving their flagship school.

Introduced with great fanfare at a dedication ceremony last month, the John M. and Muriel Olguin Campus – which was built to relieve overcrowding at San Pedro High – has some students saying they are nervous, scared and delighted all at same time to attend the $80 million facility at the Upper Fort MacArthur Reservation.

The state-of-the-art-campus comes complete with ocean breezes, a competitive swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 780-seat amphitheater. It also comes with a history of raising public ire from some nearby residents, many of whom wrangled so hard against the complex from its inception that they won Los Angeles Unified School District concessions such as no night lighting and an attendance cap of 800 students.

While quiet for awhile, the rumpus resumed immediately once the school opened Aug. 14 when it became clear that one concession school officials made would be broken – the use of Alma Street which skirts the west side of the campus.

Using busses along Alma is a must, explains Sandra Martin-Alvarenga, the school’s magnet coordinator. Each day, two busses do round-trips three times to the flagship campus, a straight shot from Alma to 17th Street. Students at both schools can take advantage of courses or extracurricular activities where they are offered.

The ride is five to eight minutes verses using the Gaffey and 37th Street exit “which is a meandering ride” out of Angel’s Gate and difficult for the buses to navigate, Martin-Alvarenga says. “We’ve got to get these kids to school on time. We are also trying to optimize the campus. We’re not an exclusive school. We want to give as many students to come here we can.”

The use of Alma reignited long simmering tensions between some neighbors and the school. Homeowner Dan Malstrom, one of many residents perturbed with this new twist and fears there’s more to come, argues this just stirs “the residual hate” that Los Angeles Unified provoked to build the campus – an action that upset many in the neighborhood who feared the annex would decline property values, take views and endanger the safety of the neighborhood.

Concerns about the safety of Alma, a somewhat narrow residential street, is another reason the artery shouldn’t be used, they argued. Malstrom has collected 200 signatures from surrounding homeowners against the opening of Alma Street – even for the busses.

“LAUSD made a promise that they would keep that gate closed,” Malstrom contends. He adds he’s a product of the magnet and believes in the school. “They need to keep that promise now so the community can heal. If they don’t keep this promise what’s next?”

He continues, “There’s more to this issue than just the busses that people don’t understand. It’s not just about two busses that pass by six times a day. It is also about other school traffic, such as delivery and commercial trucks as well as other vehicles using the gate when it’s left open. It’s about safety versus convenience.”

Now entering the fray are area residents whose children attend the Olguin campus. They want to drive in at nearby Alma to drop off their children rather than detour around to Gaffey Street – an issue Principal Jeanette Stevens has yet to determine. Stevens oversees both campuses.

The new state-of-the-art San Pedro High School campus annex comes complete with ocean breezes, a competitive swimming pool, a gymnasium and a 780-seat amphitheater.

Having attended numerous past community meetings often punctuated with a drive from residents to prevent the school’s development, Coastal Neighborhood Council president June Burlingame Smith says she’s not sure where the latest issue will head.

“If both sides are willing to listen to one another respectfully, and all options are on the table from the beginning of the dialogue, and if both sides are honest, a solution can and will be found,” Smith says. “If one side says there is no room to negotiate, then it will be usual trench warfare.”

Still up for debate is whether the school should open both the pedestrian gate and allow all vehicles to use the Alma entry. Slugging through that while trying to get a new campus off the ground isn’t easy, Stevens says.

“For the most part, the Olguin campus is up and running smoothly,” Stevens says. “There are issues around the Alma gate. However, most of the small problems have been solved. Students are in their fifth week of school. Classes are settled, sports are in full swing at both campuses and the shuttles are making their routes in a routine manner. Now we are fine tuning to ensure that each campus experiences the luxuries of the other.”

While adults argue about the school operations, students are deciding what they think of their new digs. San Pedro’s marine magnet and police academy are housed at the new annex because they draw students from across Los Angeles – the most equitable way the district could determine who attends.

Twin girls who will finish there as seniors offer opposing perspectives. “I have never been in a school that’s so nice and privileged,” says Jessica Martin, 17. “I definitely feel sorry it’s only for a certain amount of kids and I feel we are being segregated. Some of our magnet kids already have big heads and this is going to make them bigger.”

Natalie Martin, Jessica’s twin sister, thinks differently. While she believes it will be challenging – especially shuttling back and forth for classes between the two schools – she likes change. “I did enjoy San Pedro High, but I welcome the change,” she says. “I like this school. It’s eco-friendly. This school is open and beautiful and colorful. I feel I deserve to be here. I worked hard for it in my classes.”

San Pedro High will continue to act as the mother ship for the annex. While students worry about schedules and shuttling between schools, teacher Jennifer Ritz says with any new school there will be blips in the chart. “Every good system has to go through a period of trial and error,” says Ritz, an advanced placement world history teacher who said she too will miss the flagship campus. “Everything that’s successful takes time.”

Mother Carolyn Johnson, and her daughter, senior Maureen “Mo,” 17, a competitive rower, were pleased when they toured the campus. “Even though there’s inconvenience and transition, I’m excited for her,” Johnson says of her daughter. “It’s new and exciting and it has a new energy.”

Several Police Academy seniors hope the new campus will put them on better footing than their old high school where they often were embarrassed to wear their uniforms and believed other students considered them less than equals.

Cadet Jose Hernandez, 17, says, “At our old school, other kids were like, ‘You are not part of us.’ It was awkward just going in your uniform. It’s just a stereotype that we’re not smart.”

For once, “It’s more like our school,” says Cadet Jeremy J. Garcia, 17, also a senior. “We’ll be able to do a lot more. We’ll have our own field. Our own obstacle course. We’ll even have our own role call room. Before we were just sideliners.” spt