Before his sophomore year of high school, Jose Navarette had never thought of himself as a long-distance runner.
But every time he ran with large groups of his peers - at middle school soccer practice or during high school physical education class - he found himself at or near the front of the pack.
At the end of his freshman year, Navarette was pleased that members of the A.L. Brown cross country team invited him to a spring workout. He joined the team the following fall season and realized it was the sport that suited his interests and talents.
By the end of this season, Navarette, now a senior, hopes he can be just one second faster. That's how close he was last year to qualifying for the state meet, a goal he has for himself and one he wishes for the entire A.L. Brown team as well.
When Navarette started in cross country as a sophomore, he was running the five-kilometer races with the hope of breaking the 19-minute barrier. Those times put him in the top half of the team ranks but were hardly championship caliber.
"When he came out, I didn't know how good he was going to be," said coach Brian Landis. "He ran well, but he just improved there from the beginning of the season to the end."
By the end of his sophomore season, Navarette had sliced two minutes off his time and was good enough to be named All-South Piedmont Conference.
Once again, he found himself at the front of the pack with a group of his peers. This time the lead pack included some of the better runners from other teams around Cabarrus County: Mount Pleasant's Michael Dilks and Jay M. Robinson's C.J. Buck.
"I was around the same place they were and in the same grade," said Navarette. "Those are the same guys today that I'm still around."
When outdoor track-and-field season arrived in the spring, Landis had the same cautious expectations for Navarette. Landis thought it would take Navarette a full season to get accustomed to running the faster pace of a two-mile race.
By the end of the season, however, Navarette was peaking. He placed second in the two-mile at the SPC meet, then ran a personal best of 10:32 to finish fourth at the Midwest regional and qualify for the 3A state meet.
Navarette was one of only two sophomores competing at the state championships and placed 15th.
Back for a second cross country season last year, Navarette ran consistently under 17 minutes in most of his races. At the conference meet, Navarette finished behind Dilks, Buck and Braedon Koerwitz, then a senior at Robinson High, who had distanced himself from the rest of the conference.
At the Midwest Regional meet, Navarette placed ninth overall and sixth among entrants who weren't on teams and who qualified for the state meet.
That meant he was one place - a difference of just one second - from advancing to the state meet as an individual. The runner who finished just ahead of him was Dilks.
In last spring's outdoor track-and-field season, Navarette didn't again make the state meet. He rationalized that it was due as much to the improvement of the rest of the field as it was to his own times.
This cross country season, Navarette expects big things not only from himself but from some of his teammates who have competed with him each of the past two years: juniors Timmy Hall, Max Chandler, Jonathan Hodge and Mason Forrest.