Rick Cuevas has much to be thankful for.
The East Union cross country coach gets to spend part of Thanksgiving with the team this morning, as they prepare for the CIF State Championships.
The Lancers qualified for Saturday's big meet in Fresno by claiming the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III boys’ championship, the second in program history. Joining them at Woodward Park is the SJS Division IV champion Ripon girls’ team.
Cuevas saw the potential in his team as it trained on the trails of Mammoth Mountain the week of the Fourth of July.
“I told them at Mammoth, 'The way you're running now, you look like a section title team,'” Cuevas said.
He's fortunate to see it all come to fruition. That's because Cuevas, 59, survived a brain aneurysm this summer.
He noticed symptoms of the affliction as he and his wife, Ana, were getting ready to head home from the Mammoth trip.
“It felt like someone shot me in the head,” Rick said. “I've never had a headache that bad.”
With assistant coach Paul Whitaker taking care of the team's passage back to Manteca, the Cuevases rushed to nearby Mammoth Hospital where he received painkillers and a MRI scan. From there, he was sent to the nearest airport by ambulance and flown to Reno, where he was taken the under care of neurosurgeons Dr. Lali Sekhon and Dr. Marshall Tolbert.
Cuevas took medication to slow the pulsating sensation in his head and prevent another bleeding, as his body fought to stay alive. After another MRI scan around midnight, he managed to finally fall asleep while enduring the pain.
Hours later, he woke up with Dr. Sekhon and other doctors standing over him.
They bore witness to a miracle. Somehow, the bleeding had already stopped.
“(Dr. Sekhon) said, 'do you know why you're here?'” Cuevas said. “He said the medication doesn't work within 24 hours, it usually takes at least six days. 'We cannot understand why your bleeding has stopped. It has never happened since I've been here. You must have a guardian angel, because it was not the medication.'”
Dr. Tolbert took it from there. Three days later, he performed a procedure to block blood flow to the aneurysm. On Day 7, a Sunday, Cuevas was released.
“Dr. Sekhon and his staff and Dr. Tolbert took good care of me,” he said. “I was spoiled.”
Cuevas was told that the years he has spent actively running may have certainly helped keep him alive. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer about 12 years ago but overcame that in four months.
“Thankfully, the Lord has given me another chance,” he said. “I'm still here to bug people.”
His athletes are all for it.
Cuevas took two months off from coaching the team and working at East Union as a groundskeeper. In the meantime, he relayed workout plans to his daughter, Nancy Cuevas, and Whitaker. The head coach was mostly bed-ridden and needed the help of a cane and his wife to get around.
“The thought of him getting hurt or even worse, that was scary,” sophomore Johnny Sandoval said. The Valley Oak League individual champion placed fourth in the SJS Division III race to lead the Lancers.
“When we came back (from Mammoth) and didn't have him for a few months it was kind of hard to keep the team together.”
Sandoval anchors East Union's young and talented core that helped the boys team claim a third straight VOL title in what is shaping up to be a dominant dynastic run. MileSplit currently has the Lancers at No. 8 in its Division III state rankings.
Among the youngsters is freshman Alex Cuevas, coach Cuevas' nephew. The Lancers' first section title came back in 1997, Rick's first year of coaching. His son, Ricky, was a freshman on that team. Ricky went on to have a successful collegiate career in Southern California where he now serves as an assistant coach for the El Camino College cross country team.
“It's basically in our blood,” Alex said. “I just started in sixth or seventh grade and it came naturally.”
The family business of distance running started back in the 1970s when Rick became the first-ever Lancer to earn an individual VOL championship. He graduated from East Union in 1979.
Sophomores Maury Ortiz and Cooper Freeman are the other underclassmen in East Union's interchangeable top five, which gets stronger with the addition of Evan Cooper next year. The transfer from Central Valley in Ceres is not eligible to participate in varsity competition for this cross country season because of CIF rules, but he ruled at the lower levels and captured the individual crown in SJS Division III. Cooper's dad and uncle, Matt and Kevin, were previously coached by Cuevas.
The only two seniors of the bunch are Daniel Morales and Marco Perez. Perez qualified for the state meet individually last year along with the-girls teammate Julia Vezaldenos.
Morales has competed for the East Union track team since he was a freshman, and following his sophomore year he quit football to focus on running year-round. Cuevas was a big reason why.
“He's a big inspiration,” he said. “Without him we weren't be where we are right now. He's taught us so much and he's been through so much.”
Cuevas said this is the best top-to-bottom lineup he has ever coached. He is in his second stint at his alma mater, with stops at Weston Ranch and Manteca in between. He has had success at every spot, leading teams and individuals to championships in both cross country and track.
But the 2019 Lancers may be the start of something special.
Compared to the 1997 team, this one is deeper and poised to be even greater in future seasons. The 1997 squad was paced by Justin Willingham, who claimed individual and state titles before transferring to Beyer.
“We don't have that one guy up front but everyone is close together,” Cuevas said. “From our No. 1 to our No 5 there may only be a 30-second gap sometimes. With Willingham, it was like a minute-and-a-half gap.
“This team is little bit ahead of that one, definitely more talented. The 1997 team had two baseball players who were just trying to get in shape, but this team has true runners and I'll be loaded for next year.”
Cuevas also expects to have a more competitive girls squad led by April Duarte, the SJS Division III frosh-soph champion, and Taylor Snear, who earned an All-VOL spot as a freshman.
For now, he'll enjoy what he already has both on and off the trails as he continues to recover from the aneurysm. The day before the Nov. 16 SJS Championships was when he noticed that the debilitating headaches have ceased. He hasn't had one since.
“It's a very happy Thanksgiving for me,” Cuevas said. “I have my family, I have my health. I can't ask for anything more. I am truly blessed.”