Kearny girls track wins HCIAL Relay title

For a couple of years, veteran Kearny girls track coach Al Perez saw his team decimated in the aftermath of COVID. But by the end of last season, Perez noticed the program appeared to be turning the corner.

“The Covid shutdown really hurt us,” Perez said. “Our numbers went down significantly, we lost our pipeline. We had older kids on the team show the way for the younger kids and we lost that during Covid.

“I started sensing last year that it had started building back up and at the end of the year last year, we spoke with the team that next year is going to be different.”

Last week was the greatest indication yet that things were different as the Kardinals’ girl team emerged victorious at the Robert Arena Memorial HCIAL Indoor Relay Championships on Jan. 8 at the Jersey City Armory.

Kearny won four of the eight events to finish with a team score of 66 to out pace runner-up Union City for the title, the Kardinals’ first since 2020.

“We felt we had a chance (to win),” said Perez. “I wouldn’t say we thought we were the favorite, but we definitely thought we had a chance to win if things broke our way.”

One of those things was the day’s third running event, the 4×200 Meter Relay, where the Kardinals quartet of Hilary Costa, A’Sya Brown, Melissa Mota and Sara Ryan ran a time of 1:51.78 in the final to edge out North Bergen for first.

“I was pleasantly surprised that we won (that event),” Perez said. “I wasn’t anticipating winning it, but we did win it and that really put us in a great position for the rest of the meet. Our stick passing was exceptional during it and we ran really well.”

Two events earlier, Ryan and Costa served as the first two legs of Kearny’s first place Shuttle Hurdle team, alongside Priscilla Castillo and Blake Torres.

While several Kardinals had stellar performances in multiple events, Ryan stood above the rest. The senior three-sport athlete, best known for her play on the softball diamond, was a part of three first place finishes. In addition to the 4×200 and Shuttle Hurdle golds, Ryan ran the second leg of Kearny’s winning 4×400 Meter Relay team, with Mota, Brown and Keala Cicchino.

Ryan helped bring home second in the Sprint Medley, running with Costa, Mota and Cicchino.

“Sara, she’s a senior leader on our team. She’s very talented,” said Perez. “She’s a gamer for sure, anchoring our 4×200. When she got the stick, we were in second place, she waited til the beginning of the back straightaway and that’s when she made her move and then she was gone.”

Brown, Costa and Mota were parts of two first place finishes and Gabriela Pifano took first in the Shot Put Relay with a throw of 30-02.50. In total, 14 different Kearny girls competed in at least one event on the day, which saw the Kardinals finish first or second in five of the six running events.

“There’s 14 different girls that competed on the varsity level this past Monday and if any one of them isn’t there, we don’t win,” Perez said. “They were all vital pieces.

“I like the relay championships because you get a full team involvement. With a relay, you need a total team effort. You can’t do it with two or three stars. In the individuals, if you have a really good distance runner, a really good sprinter and a good thrower, you can win with three kids. In the relays you cannot, there’s no way. No matter how good someone is, they can’t make up three other legs in a relay. It’s just impossible.”

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Jason Bernstein | Observer Sports Writer

Jason Bernstein joined The Observer as its sports writer in March 2022, following the retirement of Jim Hague. He has a wealth of sports-writing experience, including for NJ Advance Media (, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)