After enjoying a great cross country season and an even better indoor track season, the Kearny High School girls’ track and field program was all set to put a crowning jewel on the top of one of the best years in the school’s rich and storied track history.
The pieces were all in place. Veteran head coach Al Perez downplayed it a little, but the Kardinals could have very well been the most dominant team in Hudson County.
“I think we were going to be pretty good,” Perez said in an obvious understatement. “We pulled back a little during the indoor season, because we wanted to protect some of the younger kids and have them ready for the outdoor season. We didn’t want some of our top athletes getting beat up and tired, so we sat them down at the end of the indoor season to have them ready to go for outdoors.”
Perez knew that the Kardinals were set to attain more glory in the spring.
“We had a great fall season and an unbelievable winter season,” Perez said. “It was all there.”
But then the coronavirus pandemic proved to be the only opposition the Kards just couldn’t beat. COVID-19 put an end to the outdoor sports campaign, ending all hopes of more glory in the spring.
“It was the best season we had in my 18 years here,” Perez said. “We had a chance to make a case for it being the best overall team that Kearny ever had all around. We had good distance runners and good middle distance runners. We had jumpers. We had all the events covered and covered well. I could tell that we were going to be even better in the spring than we were in the winter.”
The Kardinals won the Hudson County Track Coaches Association Relay and Individual team championships during the indoor season.
“Sometimes, athletes get to a point where they just plateau,” Perez said. “That was absolutely not the case with this team. They just kept getting better and better.”
The Kardinals would have opened the season during the first weekend in April at an invitational event at Long Branch.
“It’s always a great day there,” Perez said. “It’s the first Saturday in April and it’s the first time you’re out together as a team. The kids also get to run in individual races. It’s an exciting day, a rewarding day. The weather starts to turn warmer. You get excited.”
Then, the second week of the season usually produces the Kearny Relays, where relay events are introduced, but it’s right on their own home track.
At that point, Perez and his team kept the faith that there would be some semblance of a season.
“We were dreaming and hoping that it would happen,” Perez said. “But by mid-April, I think I realized it was going to be very difficult that it would happen or at the least very unlikely.”
And as every day passed, it was another day where Perez was with his great team.
“I truly missed not being around the team,” Perez said. “I missed not being at practice with them.”
The quarantine has certainly dampened the spirits of everyone.
“Some of the kids have reached out to me via phone calls or texts,” Perez said. “I was kind of putting off word that the season was over. I didn’t want to do it.”
But New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy made the decision easier for Perez last week, when he declared that the schools would remain closed for the remainder of the school year.
With that, any hope of even a truncated season went right out the window like a race tag floating in the breeze.
Perez said that he remained in contact with his team through Google Classroom.
“Most of the kids knew that it was unlikely for us to have a season,” Perez said. “They were all holding on to hope.”
Perez said that the Kearny track and field program has 20 seniors between boys and girls. His heart went out to those athletes.
“Senior year is supposed to be special,” Perez said. “For track athletes, they work their way up the ranks. They get older, bigger, faster, stronger. It’s their turn to shine. So for them to lose that chance really stinks. It’s really tough. It’s always nice to see seniors mature and then give back to the program. Losing this year is really going to hurt us.”
On the boys’ side, Nick Xavier is the top athlete that will graduate. Xavier won the 800-meter run at the HCTCA individual championships during indoor season and had to be considered a favorite to capture that gold medal again during outdoors. He was also looking to break the school record in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles. Xavier will continue his athletic career at NJIT in the fall.
“I always tell the boys to stay the course and they’ll get a chance to reach their goals,” Perez said. “Nick won’t get that chance.”
Other senior boys include distance runner Brendan Solano, distance runner Gabe dos Santos, distance runner Peter Fernandez, Tyler Ruiz, who completed in the hurdles and the sprints, and Chris Leimberg, the starting football quarterback who competed in hurdles. Leimberg announced last week that he will continue his football career at Monroe College in the fall.
“Solano was part of the track team for 12 seasons (cross country, indoor and outdoor for four years),” Perez said.
On the girls’ side, the biggest loss to graduation will be Melissa Waters, who became the best hurdler in the history of the school. Waters competed in four events, including the 100-meter hurdles, where she more than likely would have challenged for the county championship. Waters was also a competitor in the triple jump, the long jump and one of the team’s relays.
Waters received a substantial scholarship to continue her athletic career at NCAA Division I Wagner College of Staten Island in the fall.
“She finished her indoor season strong and would have had a great outdoor season,” Perez said.
Abigail Rosas is another senior that leaves the program. She heads to East Stroudsburg University in the fall.
“Her improvement was incredible,” Perez said. “She took such a huge leap. She also showed so much leadership. Having her around mentoring the younger athletes were a huge plus.”
Rosas competed in the 400, 800 and 1,600-meter runs.
Julie Castillo is another key member of the girls’ team that is moving on.
“She’s been a solid member of both the soccer team and our indoor and outdoor teams,” Perez said of Castillo. “She’s an All-County caliber athlete.”
Castillo competed in the 400 and 800-meters, as well as the 400-meter intermediate hurdles.
Others graduating include throwers Bianca Sanchez and Faith Remias, who is going to Rutgers-Newark to compete there in the fall.
Distance runners Stephanie Reveco and Rayanna Lima and thrower Victoria Populim also graduate this year.
It’s a shame that the Kearny track and field season didn’t end the way it could have.
“We really would have had a nice season,” Perez said. “It’s sad. But we’ll just have to prepare for next year. Once we get the okay to go, we’ll be a full go and adjust from there. We hope to be out there in August, but if we’re not, then we have to have contingency plans.”
Just have to wait and see.
Kearny senior Melissa Waters could have been one of Hudson County’s premier performers this spring if there was a season, but the coronavirus pandemic put an end to that. Photo courtesy of Kearny athletics
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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.”