Julia Tozduman of Lyndhurst is the 2024 Jim Hague Observer Female Athlete of the Year

Track & Field might not have been the first sport Julia Tozduman tried out. But it didn’t take long for the then sixth-grader at Sacred Heart School in Lyndhurst to fall in love with the sport.

But even after finding her sport, Tozduman had yet to discover what would eventually become her speciality — jumping.

“I just did the 200 (meter dash), the 100, I’d run the 800 and then I’d long jump,” Tozduman said. “It wasn’t that competitive, I was just figuring it out and they paid really close attention and everything. It’s where I found my love for track.”

Those humble beginnings at the small Catholic school on Valley Brook Avenue turned out to be the first chapter of a track & field career that no girl at Lyndhurst can match.

Several school records and medals later, Tozduman leaves a legacy that will be difficult for others to rival. Her senior season alone saw her win a Bergen County championship, another state sectional title, and in her final meet, a sixth-place finish at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.

Tozduman can now add one final honor to her high school career before she heads off to Sacred Heart University — The Jim Hague Observer Female Athlete of the Year for the 2023-2024 school year.

The annual award has been named in honor of Hague, who for 20-plus years was The Observer’s sports writer. It was during that tenure that Hague, a longtime Kearny resident, and the newspaper started presenting the Athlete of the Year Award to one local male and female athlete who excelled in multiple sports.

Tozduman becomes the fifth Lyndhurst girl to win the award and the first since Carly Martin in 2021.

In addition to her storied track & field career, Tozduman was a four-year letter winner in soccer and a three year starter at right back. She was a captain this fall in a season that was limited to just a handful of games due to a preseason knee injury.

“(Sacred Heart School) was where I found my love for track,” Tozduman said. “And then I started training at this place called High Intensity Track where I did sprint training and I ended up doing jump training. I realized that I loved track pretty early on.”

“Julia, the runner, was there (before high school),” Lyndhurst girls soccer and indoor track coach Kim Hykey said, recalling conversations she had with Julia’s mother Jill and then giving her some tips that summer. “The grammar schools used to come to the high school for the local olympics and she was blowing everybody out in the races so we knew of her.”

As a freshman, Tozduman earned varsity letters in soccer and basketball. She also did track in the spring, where she truly turned heads, by jumping 16 feet, 6 inches in her first long jump.

“I jumped 16 feet in my first ever meet and my trainer was like, ‘okay, I think you found your event,’” Tozduman said. “Then after those few weeks, I was like ‘wow, this could be something that I can do.’”

Prior to freshman year, the great majority of her jumping history came from doing gymnastics as a child.

“I didn’t do it competitively. I did it more just for fun,” Tozduman, who did gymnastics from ages 10 to 13, said. “I would say that even that kind of training helped. You don’t have any fears when you go on the runway. It’s very similar. It helped me be confident in myself with my events.”

Electing to give up basketball for indoor track as a sophomore, Tozduman started to gain recognition that outdoor season when she won a sectional title in the triple jump, then, less than three weeks later, finished ninth in the Meet of Champions in the long jump.

The following winter, after a strong soccer season, Tozduman became the first Lyndhurst girl to ever medal at the Indoor Meet of Champions, with a 17-04.25 to claim fifth place in the long jump. The outdoor season saw her win sectional titles in the long and triple jumps, while also medaling in the high jump. Her junior season, one of the finest of any Lyndhurst girls’ track performer, concluded with another ninth-place finish in the long jump at the MOC.

“Track’s never been the major sport, especially in our town,” Hykey said. “It’s always been kind of a secondary sport, but she’s definitely helped put it on the map. I think there are kids that even within the high school, that might have come out just because of hearing her success and what she does and who she is.”

“Julia shows up to every meet and everyone is looking at Julia knowing that she’s a stud and they want to beat her,” Lyndhurst outdoor track coach Rich Tuero said. “She has the pressure and she has to get on that runway and she has to perform and she does it every time. It’s unreal what she’s able to do.”

All eyes were certainly on Tozduman heading into her senior season. This spring she delivered a Bergen County Meet of Champions title in the Long Jump with an 18-2.25 and another sectional title two weeks later.

On June 12, Tozduman capped off her career with the only thing missing from her resume — an Outdoor MOC medal, which she got thanks to her jump of 18-0.5.

“That always has been the goal in the back of my mind,” Tozduman said. “It had to happen this year, it was my last chance. There was just no way I was leaving MOC this year without a medal on my neck.

“It’s actually amazing when I look back at everything and see it all in hindsight. I am so proud of everything that I’ve accomplished these past four years in indoor and outdoor combined. All the records, all the amazing moments with my teammates, the wins, the losses, all of that. I’m so grateful for everything and I’m so excited that I have that stuff that I’ve experienced going into college.”

Tozduman’s legacy on the track is secure, but the full extent of her impact has yet to be realized. Whether it be the children of her coaches or younger athletes she has helped during summer camps, Tozduman has become a role model to many in Lyndhurst.

“I bring my son and my assistant (Robert Fagan) brings his two kids to practices and they look up to Julia.,” Hykey said. “He has a daughter who really looks up to her and she’s not even a track kid. She just likes Julia because she’s such a sweet kid.

“I think there are plenty of girls that look up to her and probably don’t even realize just how good she is until they’re a little older. It’s nice to see that relationship.”

“She’s incredible. She’s a one-of-a-kind athlete. She’s going to be a first ballot Hall of Famer and the beauty of it all, she’s a tremendous human being,” Tuero said. “My little 5-year-old daughter Camila says ‘that’s my friend, Julia.’ That’s how Julia is the sweetest girl. It’s unbelievable.”

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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 (nj.com, The Jersey Journal, The Star-Ledger.)