RIVERBANK -- A funny thing happened to German Fernandez before racing for the first time in the Stanford Invitational last Saturday.
The Riverbank High senior got nervous.
For most high school cross country runners, that's a normal thing. The Stanford Invitational is a prestigious meet that draws runners from all over California -- even some from outside the state limits.
But Fernandez should be used to this sort of thing. He won a Division IV state title his sophomore year. He was third in the state last year. He's won his share of big races.
"This was different," Riverbank coach Bruce Edwards said. "German's a performer. You could tell he was really ready to go."
He was more than ready. Fernandez cruised past the pack and was all alone midway through the 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) race. He won in 14 minutes, 42 seconds, equivalent to running three consecutive 4:44 miles.
"There were times in that race that would win California state championships," Edwards said. "And German beat all of them by at least 40 seconds."
It was a dominant performance by a runner who has already won his share of accolades but has shifted into another gear.
How good was his time?
Rich Gonzalez, the editor of Dyestatcal.com, a Web site that covers cross country across the nation, says Fernandez and Luke Puskedra, of Ridge Memorial High in Utah, are the top two runners in the country.
Both have been setting course records at big meets. Both are turning in sub-15-minute times in 5K races. Both could be on a collision course for the Foot Locker National Championships on Dec. 8 at Balboa Park in San Diego.
"German is amazingly graceful and efficient as a runner, not to mention he has a Maserati under the hood for a cardiovascular engine," Gonzalez said. "Most statistical comparisons point to (Fernandez and Puskedra) being nearly even at this point, and the gap between them and all others (in the country) growing."
FERNANDEZ was competing in the seeded (invitation-only) race. As the gun sounded, Fernandez found himself stuck in the middle of the pack.
"It was pretty physical. There were a lot of elbows flying around," Fernandez said.
So he went out a little faster than planned. After a short time, a wave of confidence surged through him.
"I kept feeling good, kept feeling good," Fernandez said. "After the first mile, I was like, 'Let's do this.' "
He kept pushing, and was driven by the large crowd.
"They were so loud," Fernandez said. "I wanted to keep going faster for them."
It's an eye-opener for Fernandez, who has kept a low profile at Riverbank High.
"People I don't even know were yelling my name," he said. "It really hit home -- all these people were cheering for me."
When he got home, he had nearly 100 e-mails from people asking to be friends on his MySpace account. Dyestatcal.com has had nonstop Fernandez coverage. The Riverbank High marquee flashes "CONGRATS TO GERMAN FERNANDEZ" every few seconds.
"It's gotten pretty crazy," Fernandez said of his new-found fame.
That fame has come from a lot of hard work.
HE didn't run his freshman year, instead playing soccer.
"We didn't even know each other his freshman year," Edwards said. "I went and watched him run at the state track meet, but that was pretty much it."
He was out for much of his junior year with a torn meniscus, sustained playing basketball.
"But he persevered through that," Edwards said. "As soon as he could, he was walking. Then his parents got a stationary bike and he was using that. Pretty soon, he was back jogging.
"He's a very talented runner. But he's also got the work ethic. It's a perfect combination."
He placed third in the state that year. With regards to training, though, it was considered a lost season. For his senior year, he hopes to stay healthy and keep improving his time. He puts in 55-60 miles a week.
"German's a talented kid. He could run 16 minutes with a month of training," Edwards said. "But he's gotten his times so low because of hard work. He pushes himself every day.
"I think he's capable of improving by 10-12 seconds. It'll come down to how he feels and how the pace goes."
Fernandez and Puskedra most likely will meet at the Foot Locker Western Regionals -- a qualifying race -- and then at the nationals. Until then, times will be compared and people will argue about which runner is better on Internet message boards.
LOCALLY, Edwards said only two runners -- both from the 1970s -- compare.
"You've got Tim Holmes (Downey High) and Benton Hart (Modesto High)," Edwards said. "They were running German's kind of times."
Holmes won the cross country state title in 1977, setting a record that wouldn't be broken until 1985. Hart was a top runner for Brigham Young University in the 1970s.
Edwards is convinced he has a unique competitor.
"We've had a lot of good runners here at Riverbank," Edwards said. "But German is different. He's at another level from everybody else.
"A kid like German comes along once every 100 years or so. We're just enjoying watching him run."
So is everybody else.
Will DeBoard's high schools column appears Thursdays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, write him at P.O. Box 5256, Modesto, CA 95352-5256, call 578-2300 or fax 238-4551.