By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
When James Wenger transferred from Vernon High School in Sussex County to Lyndhurst High two years ago, he didn’t know what sport he would participate in.
“I played volleyball at Vernon and I really liked volleyball, but Lyndhurst didn’t have volleyball,” Wenger said. “I always knew that I could jump high and run pretty fast, so I decided to give track a shot.”
That was music to the ears of veteran Lyndhurst track and field coach Tom Shoebridge.
“He had no background in track at all,” Shoebridge said. “But I met the kid and he said, `Whatever you need, Coach.’ He was all smiles all the time. He was a humble kid, but I absolutely knew he was an athletic kid.”
Wenger found his niche in track and field as a sprinter and jumper with the Golden Bears.
“I never gave track a thought before I came to Lyndhurst,” Wenger said. “I’m really surprised I turned out to be that good.”
Last Thursday, Wenger competed in the NJIC-Liberty Division track and field championships at Overpeck Park in Palisades Park.
Wenger merely won the 100-meter dash in 11.2 seconds, finished third in the 200-meter dash in 23.8 seconds, won the high jump by clearing the bar at 5 feet, 10 inches and was second in the triple jump with a leap of 41 feet, 1.75 inches.
It meant that Wenger won four medals and accumulated 34 points, helping the Golden Bears to easily win the conference team title, outdistancing runner-up New Milford by an astounding 63 points.
For his efforts, Wenger has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. It also marks the third straight week that a Lyndhurst athlete has received the honor, joining classmates Max Hart (baseball, two weeks ago) and Casey Zdanek (softball, last week).
“I always want to give my best, to help my teammates,” said Wenger, who was also a standout wrestler at the school before a concussion ended his season a few weeks early last February. “I always want to do what I can to make the team better. It felt good to do as well as I did, but it meant more that the team won.”
Wenger’s best victory came in the 100-meter dash, where he upset previous league champions Dante Tobler of New Milford and Kenneth Ross of Secaucus.
“He got to the finals, then had to beat them both head to head,” Shoebridge said. “Then he beat them both in the finals at the line, sticking out his chest at the end. If he doesn’t use his mind and do that push at the end, he doesn’t get it. He comes through all the time. That’s just a great performance.”
Wenger had no idea he won the race.
“When I heard my name called, I was very surprised,” Wenger said. “I had no idea. I could see I was close, but I didn’t know. It was a great moment.”
What made Wenger’s performance even more impressive is that he had to compete in all four in the matter of a few hours. The events were all held on the same day.
“His 200 (meter) time was right around his personal record and his high jump was a little off,” Shoebridge said. “But since all four were the same day, it was a great performance.”
Shoebridge knew that Wenger would be an asset to his program.
“I could see the kid work hard in the weight room and watched him train and you could see he was an athlete,” Shoebridge said. “I’m not surprised at all that he did so well.” Shoebridge is also looking for more of the same from Wenger at the Bergen County Championships and the NJSIAA state sectionals. “If he gets four medals the next two weekends, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Shoebridge said. “I’m so happy for the kid. He’s the greatest kid to work with. All the other kids love him. I’m ecstatic he’s been so successful. It’s like you gave the kid a million dollars.”
Wenger enjoys the camaraderie he has with Shoebridge.
“I’m always trying my best and hoping he sees that,” Wenger said. “Knowing that he thinks I’m just reaching my potential means a lot to me. I just hopefully can continue to keep getting better.” Wenger is hoping that the success continues through the next two weekends of championship meets. “I’m just going to keep training and keep working hard,” Wenger said. “I’m going to keep working on my 100 (meter) times and my triple jump as much as I can. I would definitely say that the 200 (meter) is the toughest for me, because it’s just an all-out sprint.”
Needless to say, Wenger is happy that he was able to compete in track over volleyball.
“I’ll take this over volleyball any day,” Wenger said. “I’m pretty happy with this.”
Collecting four medals in a single day can do that for any track athlete.