It all started with two young women from two different parts of the country – one from Marlton, and the other from Tulsa, Oklahoma – coming together to form a special bond.
Kellie Henderson and Meaghan Heatherman were both Seton Hall graduate students, working on their Masters in Education, as part of the Educational Partners in Catholic Schools (EPICS) program. Both just happened to be assigned to St. Anthony High School in Jersey City as part of the program.
Henderson, the one from south Jersey, is a biology, anatomy and physiology teacher. She’s been at St. Anthony for two years. Heatherman, the one from Oklahoma, is a reading, language arts and history teacher in her first year at St. Anthony.
Both will officially receive their Masters in Education in the coming weeks.
Together, they may have a created a slice of athletic history at the tiny school in downtown Jersey City, known primarily for their nationally renowned basketball program, headed by famed Hall of Fame coach Bob Hurley.
Henderson had a fleeting idea last year to try to start a track and field program at the school. She was a runner in high school and has been a runner ever since.
“I didn’t get much of a response when I thought about it first last year,” Henderson said.
But there’s always strength in numbers. When Heatherman arrived at St. Anthony this year, Henderson realized that Heatherman also had a background in running, having competed in cross country in high school and later at St. Mary’s College in South Bend, Ind., across the street from Notre Dame.
“We both wished we had a track team here so we could coach,” Heatherman said.
“It was perfect,” Henderson said. “She liked to run. I liked to run. We both wanted to coach.”
So Henderson brought the idea to new St. Anthony athletic director Buddy Matthews, the former long-time baseball and basketball coach at Hoboken.
“I mentioned it to him and he was all for it,” Henderson said.
“I ran the idea to the kids in a few of my classes,” Heatherman said. “And a lot of them said they would love to run.”
The two would-be coaches then announced the plans to start a track program at the school at a school assembly.
“The kids broke into applause,” Heatherman said. “I was really encouraged.”
But no one could have imagined the turnout that the two new coaches would receive.
“We had 60 kids show up for the first meeting,” Henderson said.
That’s 60 kids out of a student population of a little more than 200. It’s safe to say that Hurley never had 60 kids show up for basketball tryouts and you can be rest assured that new football coach Ed Stinson won’t come close to that kind of participation level.
“My first reaction was, ‘How do we handle 60 kids?’” Henderson said. “It was really amazing. I never expected that kind of interest.”
Like in anything else involving teenagers, the interest waned a little as the practices began. Some realized that they didn’t know what they were doing when it came to running and jumping and hurdling.
Frankly, the new team didn’t even have a legitimate place to practice.
“We went to Hamilton Park,” Henderson said. “We mapped it out on our GPS that one lap around Hamilton Park was one-third of a mile, so they had to do three laps around the park for a mile. They had no idea what a 100-meter or a 400-meter was.”
But the two coaches soon found out what they had.
“We realized that we definitely had some talented kids,” Henderson said. “We knew that we had a little bit of work to do, but the kids were willing to learn.”
Incredibly, through the hard work and dedication of the kids just coming out for track and field for the first time – some just learning about the sport – the new St. Anthony track program was on the map.
Sophomore Jaovan Embry was very eager to be part of the new program.
“I was very excited to hear about it,” said Embry, who runs the 100 and 200-meter dashes and throws the shot put. “I wanted to join when I came here, but realized we didn’t have a team. Now that we do, we’re all coming together as a team. We’re just starting, but we’re pretty good.”
Embry is one of the athletes that has impressed Henderson and Heatherman the most.
“Joavan can really compete in college,” Heatherman said. “He has a bright future.”
Senior Michele Alvarenga had a little bit of track and field background, having competed for St. Joseph’s Grammar School.
“It was very disappointing and upsetting when I got to St. Anthony that they didn’t have a track program,” Alvarenga said. “But when I heard they were starting a team this year, I was so excited. I wanted to get a chance to compete.”
Alvarenga is also a sprinter.
“We found that most of the kids wanted to do the short distances and not the long ones,” said Heatherman, a distance runner by trade.
Slowly, but surely, the Friars’ track team is making strides. They’ve already competed in a few events, like the Hudson County Track Coaches Association Relays and the Kearny Relay Carnival.
“It’s been a good experience for us to interact with the other schools,” said freshman Kharizzma Chandler. “We’re also interacting with each other and becoming better friends. I’m really happy we have a track team now. I have more friends who have become like a family. It’s been fun.”
More importantly, the Friars have already brought home some medals. They are not world beaters just yet, but the idea that a brand new program has medal winners in less than a full month of its existence is impressive in its own right.
And those medal winners are proud to display their hardware.
“They get excited when they get a medal,” Heatherman said. “Each week, they keep getting better and better. I was in awe when I saw that they won medals. But more importantly, they keep running up to me and asking, ‘What was my time?’ They all care about time more.”
“I’m a little surprised with their success so far,” Henderson said. “It’s amazing to see their improvement. And it’s wonderful to see them out there, cheering for each other, encouraging each other on.”
Like a team. That’s what St. Anthony now has – a legitimate track team.
“We were at a meet in Kearny and the announcer saw my St. Anthony track and field hat,” Henderson said. “And he said he was an alumnus of the school and was happy to hear that we had a program. He was surprised. He didn’t know.”
Nor did a lot of other people, but be rest assured, these kids are establishing something for the future.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” Henderson said. “Now, we have kids doing three laps around Hamilton Park without stopping. We can see the improvement. We’re really proud.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.