By Rich Tenorio / The Daily Item For a New Englander in December, a trip to San Diego would be most welcome. However, for Peabody High sophomore Catarina Rocha, it has a little extra resonance.

On Saturday, Rocha will compete in the 32nd annual Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships at Balboa Park in San Diego. She qualified for the field of 80 after her top-10 finish (eighth place, 18:27) at the regionals on Long Island last month.

I'm a little nervous, Rocha said. I've never been at this high a level. It's pretty much a good experience for me. I'll see what it's like.

Rocha will be one of 40 girls competing in the race, a 5,000-meter course. And her approach to the race sounds very respectful.

I don't want to be cocky, she said. She does have much to be proud about, though. In her first high school season of cross country, she broke the Peabody course record in a dual meet. Then it was on to the state meet and, after that, the regionals.

At the state meet, I knew she was really close to being in the top three, said Rocha's father and coach, Joe Rocha. Everything clicked at the end. She was training well.

Runners do not have to qualify for the regionals, but Coach Rocha said that his daughter was a last-minute addition to the Tanner delegation.

We (brought) three boys, the coach said. She came along for the ride and had a great race there.

Peabody High sophomore Catarina Rocha and her father, Tanners coach Joe Rocha, are both part of a family with a strong running tradition. (ITEM PHOTO / OWEN O'ROURKE) It was a race in which Rocha needed to place in the top 10 to advance to the national title round. The course featured several sizable hills and a field of over 200 runners. The day before the race, the participants went to the course for a practice run. Then it was time for the real thing.

I was actually in the top 15 at the whole race, she said. I was not in the top 10 till the last 1,000 meters ... I started to pick up and passed a few girls.

I knew she was in great shape, Coach Rocha said. It was no good for it to be overwhelming. With 1,000 meters to go, she would make her move, and it was a great move. She went from 15th, 12th to 7th, 8th place to qualify.

It was quite an achievement for a runner in her inaugural season of cross country. Rocha did not participate in the sport as a freshman, opting for soccer instead. Once it was time to put away the cleats, however, she ran indoor and outdoor track, and when the foliage reappeared in New England in her sophomore season, she chose cross country over soccer.

I think running's enjoyable and fun, Rocha said. The girls I run with are fun, too.

Asked what it is like to have her father as a coach, she said, It's fine. He treats me like every other girl.

She was no stranger to cross country this fall, having run the sport in the sixth through eighth grades at the Higgins Middle School. (She has also played soccer since she was six or seven years old, she said, with her father also coaching her in that sport.) And of course, there is the family lineage.

Both Rocha's parents -- her father and her mother, Gina Braz -- have run in the national championships. Coach Rocha, running for New Bedford, came in 15th in 1982 at the championships, which were held in Orlando that year. Braz came in 21st at San Diego in 1985 as a Peabody senior. Coach Rocha's brother-in-law also ran in the championships in San Diego as a high school senior, making Catarina Rocha the fourth person in her family to go.

I tell her, 'Go there, have fun, experience the race,' Coach Rocha said. Learn for future years.