Hail to the top scholar/athletes in the area — Five locals earn award from NJSIAA for academic, athletic excellence

Every year, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association holds a special luncheon to honor all of the top scholar/athletes in the state.

This year, there were five very worthy recipients of the NJSIAA Scholar/Athlete Award. Unfortunately, because of the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, the luncheon was cancelled and the recipients received their awards through the mail.

But the Observer is taking the time to honor all five of this year’s top Scholar/Athletes with a special feature.

So here goes:

Gabe dos Santos, Kearny

Can there be a more worthy recipient of a Scholar/Athlete award than this young man, who was a part of the Kearny track and field team for four years?

Dos Santos received 11 varsity letters in his career – three for cross country, four for indoor track and four for outdoor track, even though there wasn’t a season this past spring.

“For the most part, it’s an individual sport,” dos Santos said. “But at practice, we’re one big community. Everyone is so friendly with each other. We hang out and stretch together. It’s a lot of fun. I’ve made so many friends through track. I’ve had friendly competition, both in practices and in races.”

Dos Santos participated in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs during his career.

“Well, only the 3,200 a few times,” dos Santos said. “I’m really not great with distances.”

Dos Santos said that he struggled at first with running track.

“It was definitely hard at first,” dos Santos said. “There was one time that I came home from practice so tired that I just conked out on the floor for about three hours. But as the years progressed, I got better with it.”

Dos Santos really never had to worry about grades. He graduated with a 5.1 grade point average (out of 4.0) and scored an astounding 1450 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

So is there any wonder that dos Santos, the salutatorian for the Kearny Class of 2020, is headed to Yale in a couple months? That’s right. A Kearny kid is Ivy League-bound for New Haven and the prestigious Yale University. Dos Santos will major in computer science and will be part of Yale’s STEM program.

Dos Santos also served as the SGA President and was the Homecoming King last fall.

“I had so many great teachers during my days in Kearny,” dos Santos said. “Academics have always been important to me. I wanted to get involved as much as I could all four years.”

Dos Santos didn’t know he was receiving the award.

“I saw something come in the mail, but I didn’t know what it was,” dos Santos said. “I was a little shocked that I received it. It came on the same day as (Kearny High’s virtual) graduation. It was a big honor to be selected. I know that there are a lot of students who do well in both academics and sports.”

But none as successful as the Yale-bound dos Santos.

James Blake, Lyndhurst

Blake earned his reputation as the tough-as-nails All-Bergen County nose guard for the Lyndhurst football team that went 11-1 and captured the first NJSIAA state sectional championship for the school in 36 years. Blake was also the heavyweight on the Golden Bears’ wrestling team, after never tried the sport before this year.

But Blake was also a stellar performer in the classroom, posting a 3.7 GPA and getting 1060 on the SATs.

Like dos Santos, Blake received the award in the mail unannounced.

“I didn’t know I was going to get it,” Blake said. “I was very excited to open the mail and get it.”

Blake, headed to Franklin Pierce, an NCAA Division II school in New Hampshire to play football, always took a lot of pride in his grades.

“School always came first,” Blake said. “My Mom (Michele Leanzo Blake) made sure I got the good grades. I had to be able to get it done in the classroom before I could get it done on the field. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to play football if I didn’t have good grades. My mother instilled that in me and that message hit home.”

Blake will major in criminal justice at Franklin Pierce with the possibility of one day becoming a police officer.

“That would be nice if it happens,” Blake said.

Blake said that he felt honored to receive such a prestigious award.

“I’m glad to see my hard work recognized,” Blake said. “There’s more than just football. It was a very good honor to receive.”

Dhruvil Desai, North Arlington

Talk about your remarkable stories of achievement.

When Desai came to the United States from his native India just two years ago, he didn’t know many people in his new home.

“I had just my uncle and his family and my family,” Desai said. “It was really tough. Everything was new. Socially, I had no friends here and I was new to the town.”

So Desai thought that the best way to make friends in his new hometown was to participate in sports.

“In India, I played cricket,” Desai said. “And I focused more on my academics. Here, sports has an equal importance, so I decided to join sports.”

So in the fall, Desai signed up to play football. He never played football before.

In the winter months, Desai joined the bowling team. He never bowled before.

And in the spring, Desai went to baseball tryouts – and he never played baseball before.

It has to be a daunting task to try to tackle three sports when all the others have years of experience ahead of Desai.

“I took advantage of my chances to play sports,” Desai said.

In football, Desai was such a quick learner that he started a few games at offensive tackle.

“When I started out, Coach (Paul Savage) put me on the defensive line, but I learned so much that I moved to the offensive line,” Desai said. “I took some really nice hits.”

In bowling, Desai didn’t even know how to hold the ball, but he became a two-handed bowler.

“When I first started, I was bowling around 120,” Desai said. “But at the end, my average was around 197. I learned how to bowl with two hands and with extra practice, I got better.”

And baseball has some similarity to cricket, so that had to be a little easier.

“Coach (Paul Marcantuono) stayed with me for extra practice,” Desai said. “That really helped me a lot.”

Desai became an outfielder and pitcher for the Vikings as a junior. His role would have probably increased this past season – but he is playing for the North Arlington team in the upcoming Last Dance Tournament in two weeks.

Desai maintained a 3.3 grade point average and received an 1150 on the SAT. He will attend Rutgers-Newark in the fall.

“This means a lot to me,” Desai said. “In India, I never got anything related to sports. I guess this means my hard work paid off.”

Adam Ruales-Godoy, Belleville

If there was a sport to be played, then Ruales-Godoy was willing to try it out.

“I’m the lucky one,” Ruales-Godoy said. “I’m very proud to represent Belleville anyway I could.”

Ruales-Godoy gave football a try, then volleyball and bowling.

“I loved to represent Belleville,” Ruales-Godoy said. “I wore the town on my sleeve. I would try anything.”

Ruales-Godoy didn’t try hitting the books. He excelled at it, collecting a 4.07 grade point average and scoring 1190 on the SAT. He’s headed to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst to study animal science, with the ultimate goal being a veterinarian.

“Animals have always played a special part of my life,” Ruales-Godoy said. “They say that dogs are a man’s best friend. Well, I’m the best friend to all animals. I want to work with animals and get paid for it.”

Ruales-Godoy said that he’s been emotional about leaving Belleville.

“There is a little bit of sadness, because I couldn’t experience my last year of volleyball,” Ruales-Godoy said. “I’m going to miss all the great people of Belleville and all the classic events. I tried to make the best out of it. It’s nice to get an award like this. It’s going to help me get in my comfort zone. I wouldn’t regret anything that happened to me. It’s a great honor.”

Ray Ugaz, Harrison

It’s not every day that a Harrison High School graduate heads to the University of Michigan.

But that’s where Ugaz is headed, after he had a brilliant scholastic career, posting a 4.21 grade point average and 1170 on his SATs. Ugaz was also the valedictorian for the Harrison Class of 2020.

Ugaz will study biology and will be on the pre-med track.

“It was honestly a dream of mine to go to Michigan,” Ugaz said. “I had this rain jacket when I was young. I put it on and it said Michigan. I said, ‘When I grow up, I’ll go to Michigan.’ When I got to high school, I did some research and realized I could get there.”

Ugaz, a native of Peru, also played his fair share of sports at Harrison. He played football for a while, then joined the cross country team as a senior. He played basketball and volleyball for three years.

“Volleyball is my main sport, but I really wanted to try everything,” Ugaz said. “Academics always came first. My mother (Silvia Carhuavilca) always made sure that I was doing good things in both.”

As for the top scholar/athlete award, Ugaz was a little shocked.

“I was kind of surprised about it,” Ugaz said. “I tried to play it cool. I thought maybe I had a shot for the scholar part. I found out in school that I was the scholar/athlete and I was proud. I put my heart into everything I did.”

And incredibly, a youth’s windbreaker is the reason why a valedictorian is headed to Ann Arbor.

“It’s actually really crazy for a jacket to make a dream come true,” Ugaz said. “The jacket still has the logo and everything.”

Ugaz was very grateful for his chance to be a Blue Tide.

“I felt like my coaches were like family members,” Ugaz said. “They kept telling me that I could do it. I doubted myself and second guessed myself, but they encouraged me. I never thought I could be the top student/athlete. It’s still a bizarre feeling, like a dream come true.”

Ugaz’s dream will eventually come true when he becomes a doctor.

“I want to focus on the human body,” Ugaz said. “I would love to be an orthopedic surgeon.”

If Ugaz could do it all over again, he would have asked for one more volleyball season to make up for the one the Blue Tide lost last spring due to the coronavirus,

“I would love to get one last ride with my teammates,” Ugaz said. “I feel like my ride was cut short.”

Learn more about the writer ...

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.”