Lush, green, tropical, Econ is always the place in town which feels, smells most like the Magic Valley, the Winter Garden of old. In strange spring periods like this, with pesky, persistent rains and steamy, sweat-bath afternoons, it could even be the Yucatan out Eastside way, and not la frontera, such is the mélange of overgrown greenery and proliferation of bugs, the latter impatient to ply their pastime of pernicious pestering.

In and among the trees Tuesday were a dozen and then half more of the school’s track athletes, working diligently as they have all year, and as most of the cinder warriors have hung the spikes up for the season, the Jags march on to regionals.

For an at-risk program in a disadvantaged part of town, the chance to advance past district is an opportunity to defy the odds. Traditionally, Econ loses athletes in droves to Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) academics combined with permissive district transfer rules, meaning its obstacles are threefold; an annoying attrition rate, mainly low-income kids facing entrenched structural setbacks, and a reputation for being only so-so in sports.

For the Jags, then, the regional meet is redemption!

TALENT, DEDICATION

The coaches are a hard-working band that will comment caustically off the record about the yearly crosstown exodus that robs them of riches, but prefers to stress the positives for the papers. And this season, as they send more athletes to the second round than any since 2004, the good news is legion.

Representing the girls’ squad of Coach Selena Brown is Leigha Brown, the fabulous freshman, plus a trio of teammates on the 4x400 relay, alternates for the San Antonio event May 3-4. Looking at Brown, one is tempted to concoct an experiment in eugenics whereby a mixture of the spindly but ultra-talented Leigha and her older sister Morgan — a physically dominant specimen who once set the pace in the Valley in volleyball — yields a Division I superstar.

Having to settle for real life is not too shabby, however, as the younger Brown has qualified for the regionals in the 300-meter hurdles and the triple jump. She actually came fourth in the latter show at district but Maya Gray of P-SJ-A pulled out to concentrate on the long jump, giving LB a shot at two medals in the Alamo City.

She worked out Tuesday with Joanna Rivera and Leslie Llanos, as relay mate Emmalinda Leal was not able to attend. Two freshmen and a sophomore, and the trio talked at length about the girls’ program and the fact that it is headed in the right direction.

“It’s been good fun this year, and challenging,” said Rivera, a talkative gal who guided the interview along with first-cabin public relations skills. “We have really pushed ourselves and coach has helped us a lot.”

Brown the coach arrived soon after and along with assistant Gene Shupe, spoke about what the program has in store. They each hope that they can fight the good fight, keeping the promising youngsters focused and in the district; so often, freshmen at Econ show bright lights at the beginning, only to peter out or transfer away.

“We’ve already had that talk with them, believe me,” said Brown, who pushes her kids hard with the experience she brings as a former DI athlete. “They have come a long way and we hope to keep it going next year.”

The girls know what is expected of them, both from the motivating force of the coaches but also from the past seasons of disappointment. They seem determined to be an underclass that retains cohesion throughout its high school years.

“A lot of us are in cross country and that means we have all been together, all season,” Brown offered, as the other girls nodded in ascent. “We’re young and we plan on sticking together.”

Over on the other side of the track, a dozen boys were warming up, which didn’t take long considering the sweltering heat and steady vocal tutelage of Coach Doug Erickson, the wise master of training and terminology. At the start of the season, Erickson, who like Brown has years of college competition (and coaching) behind him, thought he might have the makings of a banner group. And he was right.

Led by program highlight reel Nelson Hampton, the Orange men will send all three relay teams out of the Valley, along with a pair of impressive throwers and Hampton in two jumps.

Erickson, a walking and talking track-and-field encyclopedia, notes the number of records the team has broken in 2010. Hampton is now the all-time school king in the triple and long jump, having won the district title in each two weeks ago. The relay teams have set new marks in the short runs and are close to a program best in the 1600-meter baton event

For a unit that boasts just over a dozen full-time horses, the results have been nothing short of phenomenal.

“We carried almost 30 guys back in 2004, so you look at this group, and its productivity per man has been very impressive,” Erickson said, as he watched twin studs Hampton and Andrew Fox run past to create a swoosh in the heavy afternoon air. “We have held most of our people out of a few events this year, to make sure they were not overworked…the goal was to be peaking at the right time, heading into this period of the season.”

Hampton, more muscular these days and heading for what the football coaches hope will be a capstone performance as a gridiron senior, is one of those unassuming cats who has handled his smashing success with aplomb and humility. He doesn’t act like a superstar and perhaps that’s one of the reasons he’s exceedingly popular with his fellows.

Two of those teammates were sequestered at the other end of the sprawling tropical complex Tuesday, tossing the shot put and sweating profusely, surrounded by huge green trees swaying in the breeze. It is a tranquil place to work.

In Pedro Ornelas and Mariano Garza, the Jags have two of the bigger, stronger guys one will lay eyes upon at any meet. Linemen who played out their football eligibility in the fall, the duo heads to regionals against long odds, but they are enjoying the extra work.

Ornelas, All-Valley as a tackle in 2009, is 290 pounds on a 6-foot-5 frame and has college football written all over his ample carcass. Garza, who has worked like a Trojan to get in shape during his career at Econ, might be a two-sport guy down the road; Erickson thinks that he could step in and throw the javelin on the college level as well as find a spot as a 225-pound defensive end/linebacker. Long-time assistant Javier Ruiz put them patiently through the paces Tuesday, as he has done in football down through the campaigns.

So these are the ones still in the running as track and field winds down on the local level, a group of stars that has hung in there against the grain, put in the long hours it takes to become successful, and represented the school with dignity. It is a school that perennially bows up against the tide, for a series of reasons, some fair, others not. But they are showing that on the East Side, pride and poise are thriving.

Like the burgeoning brush and prodigious greenery exploding with lushness, the Orange thinclads, nurtured by their mentors and buoyed with determination, are on the grow.

NOTES: The Jags took off to Kingsville over the weekend for a regional qualifiers meet at Texas A&M-Kingsville, getting their last hard work before a week of fitness tune-ups and remedial technique toil and the trip to San Antonio Sunday night. At the Kingsville meet last season, Gavino Galvan topped 15 feet in the pole vault for the first time, leading to an advance past regionals and to the rare air of the state meet in Austin. Erickson said that during a redshirt season in Kingsville, the former Jag has become the top Javelina prospect for 2011.