NA’s Modhagala wins NJIC cross country title

When Sirish Modhagala was in eighth grade in North Arlington, he aspired to become a football player.

“I played football my freshman year in high school,” said Modhagala, who first attended Paramus Catholic High School for two years.

And during his tenure at Paramus Catholic, Modhagala went from being a prospective gridiron star to a cross country runner.

“I felt like it was a personal thing,” Modhagala said. “It really showed me that I could do anything. I never ran before. I basically did it to get in shape.”

Modhagala got an idea that he could blossom into a good runner.

“It was late in my freshman year and I ran a freshman 800-meter run,” Modhagala said. “I won the race and got a medal. That’s when I thought I could go somewhere as a runner.”

However, after two years at PC, Modhagala wanted to come back home to North Arlington.

“I felt like it was a better fit for me,” Modhagala said. “It was better for me if I came back here.”

So last year, Modhagala enrolled back in his home district. But he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire with his times.

“I think my PR (personal record) was 18:06,” Modhagala said. “I knew I had to put in the time and the work to get better.”

Enter Stephanie Sinclair. The former Ridgefield High School and Kean University runner took over the head cross country coaching duties last year.

Sinclair said that she had some idea that Modhagala could improve.

“I always knew that he was a capable runner,” Sinclair said. “He just had to put the work in to improve.”

When both Modhagala and Sinclair talk of the necessary work needed, they’re talking about mileage. Yes, running in the heat of the summer, pushing the body to the limit.

“He was doing 45-to-50 miles a week,” Sinclair said. “We had to calm him down a little. But he was very dedicated to his workout schedule.”

“I was cranking it up to 60 miles a week sometimes,” Modhagala said. “I really felt like I was pushing myself and I knew that my body could handle it.”

When the cross country season began in earnest in August, Modhagala was ready. It was his senior year and he was going to make the most of it.

“I definitely felt stronger,” Modhagala said. “I did a lot of weight training and that definitely helped.”

Modhagala went to TNTNJ, a crossfit training facility in Paramus three times a week.

“I definitely knew what I could do,” Modhagala said.

Last week, at the New Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Meadowlands Division championships at Garret Mountain Reserve in Woodland Park, Modhagala simply ran away from the field, crossing the finish line in 17:35 and capturing the league championship in the process.

Modhagala became the first North Arlington runner to capture a cross country championship in recent memory.

“I was able to get out in the first mile in 5:12 and I thought that was crazy,” Modhagala said. “I definitely knew I could do it.”

Modhagala was somewhat was hampered by an allergic reaction the night before the race.

“I was up since 4 a.m.,” Modhagala said. “I was a little scared and the first mile, I was a little shaky. But I just knew I could do it.”

After Modhagala crossed the finish line, there was a sense of major accomplishment.

“It was something else,” Modhagala said. “I always had the league championships in my sights. Every workout I did, I remembered all the guys who beat me. To finally win means so much. Last year, I got sick in the second mile and had nothing left. I came in eighth. That’s what this year was for, to get another chance.”

Sinclair said that she felt fortunate to have the chance to coach Modhagala over the last two years.

“It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have him for all four years,” Sinclair said. “I wish we had him a little longer. I’m not surprised with what he’s done. To be honest, I thought he could do it. He’s been hitting his mark (with his times). He’s getting more consistent.”

Modhagala competed in the Greystone Invitational last Friday, finishing fourth in the small school division with a time of 17:03.69.

“He’s on a good body clock right now,” Sinclair said. “I’m really hoping for big things for him in the county meet (this weekend, also at Darlington). Sirish has a nice kick and once he gets that going, I don’t think anyone can beat him.”

Sinclair loves what Modhagala offers away from the cross country courses.

“He’s a good leader,” Sinclair said. “He’s very disciplined and helps the others. He also loves the sport. He’s a true leader. Once we started working out in the summer, the kids all followed his lead. He’s very into running and does his research. He’s a good kid with good grades.”

Sinclair likes one special trait of her standout harrier.

“When a race is about to begin, he makes sure to shake everyone’s hand along the line,” Sinclair said. “That’s just the way he is. It helps the other kids who are green to the sport to understand what is necessary. It’s been a lot of fun watching him develop. I think he’s just starting to blossom. I think he’s going to peak at the right time, because in my mind, he’s fresh.”

Sinclair knows that the upcoming Bergen County championships this weekend and the NJSIAA state sectionals the following weekend are major goals for Modhagala.

Sirish Modhagala has made a name for himself _ even if it’s a name that’s hard to spell and pronounce. It’s SEAR-EESH MOD-HA-GA-LA.

“My parents were born in India,” Modhagala said. “I know my name is tough. Even our assistant principal butchered it the other day in announcements. It’s now a little funny that people can’t say my name. Any time I meet someone for the first time, I’m ready for the question. People always ask me about my name.”

Modhagala hopes to get a chance to run in college. He wants to study business in college, but has no idea where he will end up.

“I want to run in college, wherever that may be,” Modhagala said. “I have months before I make that decision. But winning this championship is definitely the first step.”

And with bigger fish to fry over the next two weeks.

Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer