When Maria Laverde was growing up in Queens, N.Y., she always fancied herself as being a soccer player.
After all, it made a lot of sense, considering Laverde’s parents are from Colombia, which is almost like the soccer capital of South America. Laverde was born in Colombia and came to the United States when she was just seven years old.
But last year, Laverde’s parents decided to move across the Hudson River to New Jersey, settling in Kearny.
“At first, I didn’t want to come,” Laverde said. “My family told me that it was going to be better for me, but I didn’t believe them.”
However, Laverde realized that she was moving to a town that has the distinct nickname of “Soccertown, USA,” thanks to its rich soccer history and being the hometown of soccer legends like John Harkes, Tony Meola and Tab Ramos.
“When I played soccer, I just ran all the time,” said Laverde, who was a forward in her soccer playing days. “I just ran with the ball or ran without it. I always liked running. I never knew how good I was.”
So when Laverde enrolled at Kearny High School, soccer became a thing of the past.
“I wanted to try something new,” Laverde said. “I was living in a new town, going to a new school. It was time for something new.”
Laverde then went to try out for the Kearny cross country team.
“She came out in the summer,” Kearny head coach Al Perez said. “She had mentioned that she had played some soccer before and after all, this is ‘Soccertown, USA,’ but after about three days, I knew she would be with the varsity. It was pretty evident right away that she had some ability and talent. She didn’t have a lot of experience.”
Perez knew that with a virtual newcomer, he had to treat Laverde with kid gloves.
“I had to be careful with her,” Perez said. “We had to let her come along gradually and develop. She had to learn how to work out, how to practice properly. We didn’t want her to do too much too soon.”
But after a brief stint, Perez knew that Laverde’s progress was rapidly developing.
“She was handling the workouts with ease,” Perez said. “We eventually put her in a time trial and she was beating the other varsity runners. There were some established runners on the team, but Maria went right by them. She was able to beat everyone.”
“I saw that I was pretty good at it,” Laverde said.
Perez entered Laverde in an invitational cross country race at Darlington Park in Mahwah to start the season. She finished among the top five in the race. Laverde then raced in the highly competitive Passaic County Coaches Invitational at the Garret Mountain Reserve in Woodland Park on Oct. 1. Laverde finished 10th in the Varsity A race in 20:49.
“As the season went on, she just kept getting better and better,” Perez said. “She practices well and races well. Some runners practice well, but don’t necessarily race well. Maria races very well.”
Laverde won the South Hudson championship last week at Bayonne County Park as a prelude to last Saturday’s Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships, also at Bayonne Park.
“The goal was for her to finish among the top three and to keep (defending champion Weeshamar) Senatus (of Hudson Catholic) within her sights,” Perez said.
“I worked hard to get ready for the race,” Laverde said. “I thought I had a shot.”
Halfway through Saturday’s race, Laverde found herself in front of the entire pack.
But not knowing the strategy of running the race, Laverde struggled a little on the hills and had to watch Senatus go past her.
“She went far past me,” Laverde said. “I tried to catch her, but couldn’t.”
Kayla Sullivan of St. Dominic Academy also snuck past Laverde and as the runners hit the running track in Bayonne Park for the final 400 meters, it appeared as if Laverde was going to have to settle for third place.
“I saw the St. Dominic girl (Sullivan) in front of me and I decided I was going to do my best for second place,” Laverde said. “I was able to catch up to her. I really thought I was only going to get third. I had to push myself hard to get past her. I just sort of took off.”
With about 100 meters to go before the finish line, Laverde kicked past Sullivan to earn the runner-up status behind the winner Senatus. Laverde crossed the line in an impressive 20:08.7, an excellent time and place for a virtual novice in the sport.
“I never thought I would get this far this fast,” Laverde said. “It has all really surprised me. I think I work very hard. I love running and I’m kind of driven when I am running. I just have to stay humble and I’ll get better. I want to keep improving. I’ve worked hard and I think it’s showed.”
Laverde will now compete in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championships at Garret Mountain Saturday with the hope of moving on to the overall Group IV championships at Holmdel Park Nov. 11 and perhaps a berth in the Meet of Champions a week later.
“It’s all crazy,” Laverde said. “I never thought I could do this. I never even dreamed of it. I dreamed of going to the World Cup and playing soccer there. This has all been so fast. But I want to strive to be the best I can be.”
That is, the best runner she can be. Soccer, even in Soccertown, USA, has been placed in the rear view mirror.
But the second place finish in the county championships is just the start. After all, she’s just a freshman. The future is extremely bright.
“I think she has room for improvement,” Perez said. “I think the seasons of track (indoor and outdoor) will make a big difference. She’s young and she’s going to grow. She has to learn some things that will help her. She’s driven and she listens. But I’m excited to have her. I’ve been coaching here for 15 years and she’s as talented of a runner as we’ve had in that time. She obviously has a lot going for her.”
And wherever Maria Laverde is going, it’s going forward with no turning back now. She’s well on her way to becoming the next great in a line of great Kearny cross country runners.
For the Kardinals, Nicole Veloso was 15th overall and Lindsay Murdoch 18th at the HCTCA championships Saturday. The Kardinals placed fourth as a team.