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Thomas Valles and Johnny Samaniego may not be names everyone recognizes but ask the cross country teams from Donna High and Donna North High Schools and they’ll tell you exactly who these people are.

Both men, now college graduates and career professionals, were members of the 1987 California cross country state champion McFarland High School Cougars. That was the year the team secured its first of nine titles under Coach Jim White or Blanco as he was affectionately referred to by his students. The runners’ real-life story came to light when it was featured in the 2015 American sports drama film “McFarland USA” which highlighted the students’ financial struggles and their lives as migrant workers.

Valles and Samaniego said memories of their 1987 victory came racing back when they attended the UIL State Cross Country Meet in Round Rock Nov.12. They made it a point to be there to support the cross country teams from the Rio Grande Valley.

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DISD Athletic Director Manuel Moreno, McFarland CC Team members Johnny Samaniego and Thomas Valles & DISD Superintendent Fernando Castillo

“At the end of the last school year, we found out we were going to be making a trip down here when the cross country state meet was going on,” Valles said. “I told Johnny ‘hey, why don’t we just fly to Austin and support all the teams we’ve met in the Rio Grande Valley. One of the teams was Donna North. They did really well.’ ”

In all, there were 253 Class 5A schools competing. DNHS placed second in the team standings while DHS placed eighth. Both Donna entries finished in the top three percent of the field.

“It was a great accomplishment for both Donna North and Donna High teams to finish in the top 10,” Donna ISD Superintendent Fernando Castillo said. “Congratulations to both teams and their coaching staffs. Cross country requires many miles of running at early morning hours for a race that consists of three fast miles. It’s a sport that requires a lot of mental preparation and not to mention much physical endurance. They did a super job.”

Valles and Samaniego said team support was also very evident at the meet. They saw teachers, administrators and parents out in force. While they realize many parents are not able to attend their children’s extra-curricular activities because they are working in the fields, they hope to help change that when they travel across the country spreading their message of hope and inspiration to students.

“Johnny and I made a pact to come back next year and we want to do whatever we can to make sure some of those parents are there to support their team, if not all of them, some of them, because we don’t want them to miss out,” Valles said. “Second place in the state of Texas is something grand. This honor should be shared with their whole family, not just their teammates. Hopefully their hard work will lead to a path to higher education.”

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The 1987 California Cross Country State Champion McFarland High School Cougars

“Blanco had a saying, ‘it’s all in the attitude,’ ” Samaniego said. “He saw potential in us and so he would remind us that you can’t control the family you are born into. You can’t control the issues or problems you’re going through. The only thing you can control is your attitude so if you can control your attitude and wake up positive every morning then you will be successful in life.”

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