Golden Bears prove that there’s life after Rono
By Jim Hague
When the Lyndhurst boys’ cross country program had Patrick Rono as a member, the Golden Bears were considered one of the best teams in the area.
But Rono, the 2010-2011 Observer Male Athlete of the Year, has since graduated and headed off to the University of Arkansas. It left the remaining members of the team to carry on without the superstar runner.
“A lot of people said that we were all about Pat,” senior Thiago Fernandes said. “We wanted to prove that we could do it without him. So that was one of our goals this season.”
“I think our main goal was to show people that we are not just Pat Rono,” said fellow senior Danny Gaspar. “We knew it was impossible to replace Pat. There’s no one like him. But if we all put it together and got five of our runners to run tight and close to each other as a group, perhaps we could be an even better team.”
It almost seems insane that a team could actually be better without one of the top runners in the entire state.
“Last year, every article that was written about us started with Patrick as our lead,” Lyndhurst cross country coach Michael Picardo said. “For us to gain an identity as a team, we had to have some success without him. We were tied to Pat for three years. This team had to show that they were more than one guy; that they had to shine in their own spotlight.”
Looks like the team is getting that message.
That’s because the Golden Bears went out last week and captured their third straight Northern Jersey Interscholastic Conference-Meadowlands Division championship, but the first without Rono.
They also finished second at the Bergen County Group Championships at Darlington Park in Mahwah, placing second to Ridgefield Park in the Division C race.
“Winning our third in a row is great,” Picardo said. “I think we’re all really excited about it. It’s always our first goal, winning the league. For us this year, it’s just a stepping stone, because we have the state sectionals upcoming (Nov. 5 at Warninaco Park in Elizabeth). We took second place in the county and I know the kids are a little upset, because they didn’t run as well as they could have.
Added Picardo, “But when you put it into perspective, four years ago, we couldn’t get second place anywhere and now we’re second place in the county. I’m really proud of the kids and what we’ve been able to do.”
Gaspar has been the team’s best runner all season, but he gave way to Fernandes in the NJIC Meadowlands race, as Fernandes won and Gaspar took second. Those places reversed at the county meet, where Gaspar finished ninth overall and Fernandes finished 14th.
“Danny has been our No. 1 runner all year, but Thiago won the league meet,” Picardo said. “Danny knows that he can run better and the sky’s the limit for him. He just has to get after it.”
Fernandes has been a solid No. 2 runner.
“When push comes to shove, Thiago does what he has to do to get the job done and get us over the top,” Picardo said. “He’s a tireless worker.”
The third runner has been freshman Andre Francisco, who finished 19th at the county meet in a fine time of 17:43.
“He’s done a phenomenal job,” Picardo said. “Danny has taken Andre under his wing and the two now are inseparable. It’s nice to see.”
Senior Max Estevez is the fourth runner and has been having a steady campaign, the same for seniors Ricky Suarez and David Torres. Suarez was a junior varsity runner last year, while Torres played football.
Adam Pena, a junior, ran as a freshman, but did not come out for the team last year. Pena has now returned to the fold and is performing solidly as well.
“The kids all enjoy being there,” Picardo said. “They all work hard and they’re there all the time.”
Incredibly, Picardo said that there are a total of 55 kids involved with the Lyndhurst cross country program, an unthinkable number for a Group I school and unfathomable considering where the program was just a few years ago.
“It’s been a pleasure to watch this program grow,” Picardo said. “We have 15 kids on the freshman team and they’re pretty good. The future looks good.”
“We want to keep the legacy going,” Fernandes said. “We have some freshmen stepping up, so we’re showing that we have a real program. I never thought we would be able to accomplish all of this, but it’s been a lot of fun.”
And the Golden Bears keep winning, even with the marquee performer a part of the archives.
“I hate to say it, but we don’t even use Pat’s name anymore,” Picardo said. “We refer to him as ‘him.’ We don’t mention him at all. We’ve gone forward and formed our own identity. We had to be more of a team this year, not just one kid.”
It seems to be working. The real test comes in two weeks at the NJSIAA North 2, Group I state sectionals.