Special to the Mercury News
Saratoga High School Sophomore Alisha Follmar runs sprints with teammates during track and field practice on May 13, 2003.
Saratoga High School Sophomore Alisha Follmar runs sprints with teammates during track and field practice on May 13, 2003.

Before Alicia Follmar ever won a championship, or considered the possibility, Saratoga High track coach Marshall Clark took the quiet freshman aside.

``You're going to do great things,'' he told her.

Since that day, Follmar has indeed begun to accomplish great things. As a sophomore in the midst of the most important part of her season, Follmar has emerged as a confident, self-assured competitor with an efficient stride and a dazzling finishing kick.

The 15-year-old has two league titles, the second-fastest mile in the state and incredible possibilities for her future.

Over the past month, Follmar has gone from overlooked to feared, seemingly crushing personal and school records with every race. Potential is becoming reality.

The possibility of winning a state championship doesn't seem unthinkable anymore, even though no Saratoga girl has achieved it.

Is Follmar capable?

``Yes, I think she is,'' Saratoga distance coach Peter Jordan said. ``Maybe this year.''

But would it really matter if Follmar never won anything else? Upon reflection, it becomes apparent that the most significant aspect of her triumphs was not the success itself, but that someone believed she could achieve it.

But then that's what Clark was all about. He coached for 40 years before he died at 69 of a heart attack during practice Sept. 29.

``Marshall had a great way of making you believe in yourself. He made it seem so easy,'' said Jim Bordoni, who ran for Clark at Stanford University in the early 1970s.

Clark's career included stops at major-college programs such as Stanford, Montana and San Jose State, before he settled down at Saratoga High, spending a decade building a struggling program to one that numbered more than 130 participants. Clark coached Olympians, American record-holders and state champions but seemed to draw as much satisfaction in helping the slower runners achieve personal records as much helping a faster one become an All-American.

Bordoni was attending the CCS Top 8 Classic at Los Gatos on April 26 when he saw Follmar make up 20 yards on the last lap of the 3,200-meter race to chase down Valley Christian standout Amanda Thornberry and nearly catch Presentation's Melissa Grelli at the tape.

``When I saw her come out of nowhere, I saw a little bit of Marshall out there,'' Bordoni said. ``You don't even attempt to pull off something like that unless you believe in yourself.''

Follmar's 10:48.44 in that race was the fifth-best time in the state. But her best race is the 1,600 -- the high-school version of a true mile. Perhaps it's no coincidence that she ran her best time Saturday in that event, 4:52.47, in front of Clark's widow, Carol, who was attending her first meet since his death.

Follmar never trained directly under Clark -- her coaches have been Laura Lopez and Jordan -- but she was heavily influenced by him. He took her aside, taught her how to race and built her confidence.

``I've dedicated my running to him,'' Follmar said. ``He's given us so much. His whole life has been helping this track team. The athletes on this team owe something to him. I'm trying to pay him back.''

She is.

Greg Brock, an All-American at Stanford who was coached by Clark, said, ``She is the continuation of Marshall's legacy.''

Only Follmar sees this responsibility as a privilege, not a burden.

``I'm very happy Alicia's doing well,'' Carol Clark said. ``I know Marshall would be so delighted with her accomplishments. It brings me comfort to know the positive impact he had on Alicia's life.

``It's as if a torch has been passed to a new generation.''

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