The Hudson County Track Coaches Association Relays championships were held last week at the Jersey City Armory and Kearny High School head coach Al Perez started to pump up his girls’ team.
“I felt like we have a really strong team,” Perez said. “I thought we had a chance to win.”
So Perez put that idea in the heads of his senior leaders.
“It was definitely a huge goal,” said senior Julie Castillo, one of the team’s most versatile performers. “Perez talked about it and that we had a good chance to win if we perform our best.”
“We were all stressed out about it the day before,” said fellow senior Abigail Rosas. “It’s our senior year and we would never have another chance. Me, Julie and Melissa (Waters) all talked about it as our last chance. We’ve gone through it all together.”
But here was an interesting fact: Kearny never won the HCTCA Relays before. Like in ever.
That’s an amazing idea, when you consider that Kearny has had such a rich and storied history in track and field. But these were the HCTCA Indoor Relays, a new challenge for a historic program.
Perez likes competing in relay events, because it’s a team event and there’s a lot of strategy involved.
“We really enjoy it as a coaching staff,” Perez said. “We take a lot of time putting together a game plan, looking to the events where we can score the most amount of points. It’s really like putting together a puzzle. We also do a little research on the competition to see where we can get points. We don’t want to overload our runners. We ideally want to get as much as we need to win and use the big dogs in the right spots.”
Perez certainly has one main “big dog,” namely junior Maria Laverde.
The reigning Hudson County champion in cross country is competing strong during the indoor season and at the HCTCA Relays, Laverde competed in four events – the distance medley relay, the sprint medley relay, the 4×800-meter relay and the 4×400-meter relay.
Of those four relays, Kearny won three (the 4×400, the 4×800 and the sprint medley) and finished second in the other, the DMR. That’s an impressive day, three golds and a silver.
“We had Maria run harder in some and run easy in others,” Perez said. “We tried to keep her legs fresh, because even at 75 percent, she’s better than most. In order for that plan to work, we needed the others to pick it up. But having someone like Maria gives you a lot of flexibility. She is very dominant right now and the way we set it up, if we put her in a race, she gave us a chance.”
Laverde gave the Kardinals more than a chance. She gave them 38 points out of a possible 40 in the events she ran.
“It was not a bad day at all,” Perez laughed.
Led by Laverde, the Kardinals defeated the closest competition, being Snyder of Jersey City, winning 63-56, with North Bergen finishing third and St. Dominic Academy placing fourth.
It gave the program the first county relays title ever.
The victory was not all Laverde by any stretch of the imagination.
Just like Perez said, it’s a team event and the Kardinals needed contributions from everyone.
“Melissa Waters is a stud in her own right,” Perez said.
Waters was part of the shuttle hurdles, which finished third; 4×200-meter relay, which finished third and the winning sprint medley relay.
“It was pretty important to us,” Waters said. “Perez was really motivating us. We wanted to go in and win.”
Waters had no idea that Kearny never won it before.
“That’s pretty cool,” Waters said. “We wanted to go in and win. Every race, I tried my best and tried to make sure that we beat our rivals, like Snyder and North Bergen. We just tried to get in front of them. Since the three of us (Waters, Castillo and Rosas) are seniors, we wanted to win and give us a chance to run track in college.”
Rosas had a memorable day, running the 4×200-meter relay, the 4×400 and the sprint medley.
“We don’t win without her,” Perez said. “She’s come on the most of anyone. From last year to now, she’s improved so much. She’s worked really hard during the summer and cross country and it has transformed her into another fine runner.”
Rosas vividly remembers her days as a freshman, when she wasn’t as fine.
“Perez used to make fun of me because I was a crybaby after races and practices,” Rosas said. “The practices were so hard sometimes that I would cry. He made fun of me because I cried. But now I don’t cry. My times are getting better and the team is getting better.”
Castillo also competed in four events – the shuttle hurdles, the 4×200, the 4×400 and the 4×800.
“It’s incredible what she can do,” Perez said. “She’s very versatile. She’s a good hurdler outdoor, but we had to work with her running the short hurdles just for this meet.”
“It was definitely a big challenge for me,” Castillo said. “He (Perez) always wanted me to run the shuttle hurdles, so this was a good change.”
Perez has to train the runners outdoors, even in the winter months, because there is no local indoor facility.
“We have to make adjustments according to the weather,” Perez said. “We make it work.”
Two weeks ago, the team faced major adversity.
“Just as we were getting going, we had that snow squall that dumped about two inches of snow on us in 20 minutes,” Perez said. “We don’t complain. We make the most of it.”
Perez was also impressed with the efforts of the shot put relay of seniors Bianca Sanchez and Victoria Populim.
“They both stepped up and got us third there,” Perez said.
The high jump relay of junior Katelyn Millar and sophomore Raquel Reyes finished second.
“Both of them exceeded expectations,” Perez said.
Junior Cassandra Jovellanos (4×200, sprint medley), senior Rayanna Lima (DMR), and sophomore Marianna Martins (shuttle hurdles) also contributed to the big win.
“It really was a big win for us,” Perez said. “I’m really proud of them.”
And maybe there’s more to come.
“We’re the best of friends, so it’s a really good feeling,” Rosas said.
“Hopefully, we’ll get other chances,” Castillo said. “Whatever happens, happens.”
The Kearny High School girls’ track and field team captured the Hudson County Track Coaches Association Relays championships last week in the Jersey City Armory, winning the county relay title for the first time. Photo courtesy of Al Perez
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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer
Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.
It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.
In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.
In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.
He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.
During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.
Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.
Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”