Tony Rodriguez set the Tulare Western school record in the boys 400 meters in 1984 with a time of 49.2 seconds.
When he took over the Tulare Western track and field program in the mid-1990s, his school record in the 400 was still intact.
During his time as head coach, there has been no shortage of challengers who wanted to erase Rodriguez’s name from the record book.
“Every year someone has told me they were going to break it,” Rodriguez said. “I’ve always said, ‘Go for it. I would like to see you break it.'”
There have been several athletes that Rodriguez thought would break his record, but it never came to fruition.
And it’s not like Rodriguez has been been trying to shy athletes away from the 400 — the event is a staple for the decorated Tulare Western track and field program.
“It’s kind of our philosophy that everyone runs the 400,” Rodriguez said. “We tell our kids all the time that it doesn’t matter how fast or slow you run [the 400], it’s going to hurt. But it hurts a little less the faster you go. So why not run it fast. You’re going to hurt, but you’re going to be happy.”
Joe Herrera didn’t think the 400 was for him. He wanted no part of that “hurt.”
When he entered high school, Herrera only saw himself as a sprinter, wanting to stick with the 100 and 200 meters.
But Tulare Western coach Traion Baker said Herrera had the potential to do very well in the 400.
Herrera wasn’t buying what she was trying to sell him.
“I didn’t believe her,” Herrera said.
But Baker and Rodriguez inserted him into the Mustangs’ mile relay team for the 2011 West Coast Relays, and the then-freshman Herrera ran a sub-51-second 400-meter leg.
That run turned Herrera into a big believer of Baker’s prophecy about his 400-meter potential.
“I went, ‘Yeah, this is my event,'” Herrera said. “That run opened up my mind, and I could see what Traion was trying to tell me.”
And Rodriguez knew it was only a matter of time before his record fell.
“The 400 kind of became his focus after that. He got a little more experience during summer track. You could see his confidence grow. His talent in the event is limitless,” Rodriguez said.
Herrera would break the 400-meter school record in 2012, 28 years after his head coach set it, and Herrera would keep on setting the school record en route to becoming one of the nation’s elite 400-meter runners, garnering a track and field scholarship to UCLA in the process.
Herrera, the 2014 Times-Delta/Advance-Register boys track and field athlete of the year, capped a phenomenal high school career that includes accomplishments that may not be witnessed in this area again for at least another 30 years.
• Herrera defended his Central Section gold medal this year in the boys 400 meters, and went on to earn a fourth-place medal at the CIF State Track and Field Championships. His top time of 47.25 seconds ranks him at No. 32 in the nation. He captured three Central Area gold medals (200, 400 and 400 relay). He qualified for the CIF state meet in the 200 with a season-best time of 21.54 seconds at the Central Section Championships, where he took second place.
• His final career first-place medal tally for the East Yosemite League Championships stands at 13 after winning four events at this year’s EYL meet (200, 400, 800, 400 relay).
• During his career, he won league titles in the 100, 200, 400 and 800, not exactly a quartet of races that are commonly traced to one athlete. Sure, there are the runners who excel in the 100/200, 200/400, 400/800 combos. But not all four of them together.
“He could probably run a 10.8 or better in the 100 meters if he focused on that event. He could run a solid mile if he wanted to. He’s very blessed with talent, and he works, really, really hard,” Rodriguez said. “[Baker] has done an outstanding job on focusing on things that need work and he does them.”
Herrera explicitly pointed out Baker’s instruction and stewardship of his career as a major reason why he will be running for one of the nation’s top college track and field teams next year at UCLA.
“She’s worked me hard the past four years. She always helps me run to the best of my abilities,” Herrera said. “This year, I felt a lot stronger. Traion had me working out in the weight room all year, and focusing on my form and technique. It worked out very well.”
His development from 400-meter neophyte into the Central Section’s premier runner in that event has fueled Herrera’s hopes for a promising future, as he took in the recent NCAA Championships on ESPN3 and ESPNU.
“That pumped me up even more,” Herrera said.
Rodriguez believes Herrera will be a fixture at the NCAA Championships during his collegiate career at UCLA.
“He’s fallen in love with that race. I believe he will be even more successful next year once he gets to UCLA,” Rodriguez said. “I can see him running [between 45-46 seconds] next season. And I wouldn’t be surprised to see him in the finals of the NCAA Championships.”