When Shaquille Sutherland was born on the island of Trinidad some 18 years ago, his parents were obviously huge basketball fans.
They decided to name their baby boy after basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal, who ironically lived in Jersey City for a good portion of his childhood.
“They were big fans of him and of basketball,” Sutherland said. “There’s only one problem. I can’t play basketball at all. I get kidded about having that name all the time. People call me Shaq and ask me if I can play. I can dunk the ball, but I can’t play.”
But there’s no question that Sutherland can run.
He’s been a fixture on the Dickinson High School cross country and track and field teams since he enrolled at Dickinson three years ago.
“I never ran track before I came to Dickinson,” Sutherland said. “The first time ever I ran was in high school.”
Dickinson cross country and track coach Leo Laboy saw something special when Sutherland first joined the indoor track team as a freshman.
“He came out during his freshman year and you could see right away that he was going to be a good one,” Laboy said. “He looked like he was a natural.”
Sutherland first got his track feet wet as a middle distance runner, competing in the 200-meter and 400-meter runs, as well as the 400-meter hurdles as a freshman.
“Believe it or not, I think he’s better as a middle distance runner,” Laboy said. “That’s his calling card.”
“Towards the end of the indoor season that year, I started to feel like I was getting pretty good,” Sutherland said. “I ran one race and won and that was it.”
But that idea hasn’t stopped Sutherland during the current cross country season.
“He’s very passionate about the sport,” Laboy said.
“I just had to put a lot of work and concentration into it,” Sutherland said. “I started to run a lot.”
Sutherland was asked how much is a lot.
“I ran 384 miles this summer,” he said.
According to the Distance Calculator at www.globefeed.com, that’s the equivalent of running from Dickinson High School to Pittsburgh.
“Yeah, it’s about that,” Sutherland said with a smile. “I put in a lot of hard work over the summer, because I knew I wanted to have a great cross country season. The first time I ran cross country, it was pretty hard, because I wasn’t used to the distance.”
It didn’t hurt that Sutherland had a pretty impressive tutor over the summer, namely 2010-2011 Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year Jose Veras, who basically turned himself from a standout on the track into one of the best cross country runners in the state, finishing sixth in the North Jersey Section 1, Group IV championships two years ago.
“Shaq puts in the time to work with Jose,” Laboy said. “They train together and they hang around together. No question, it helps Shaq to get better. Just being around someone like Jose is a big help to Shaq. He’s actually taken on some of Jose’s traits.”
When the current cross country season began, Laboy knew that he had the makings of a champion with Sutherland.
“I really believed that he was going to be the man to beat,” Laboy said. “I was going to let his running do the talking.”
Sutherland started the season with a victory at the Brett Taylor Invitational at Darlington Park in Mahwah. That was just a little smidgeon of what was to come.
Sutherland also won the Jersey City and South Hudson championships, making him the prohibitive favorite to win the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championship.
Which Shaq did, crossing the finish line at Bayonne County Park in 16:10.30, eight seconds better than the rest of the field.
“When I started, I just wanted to break 18 minutes,” Sutherland said. “That was my goal.”
Obviously, it’s a goal that he definitely achieved.
Last Saturday, Sutherland competed in the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group IV championships at Greystone Park in Morris Plains. He finished fifth in 16:22.10, punching his ticket to the overall Group IV state championships in Holmdel Park this weekend. If Sutherland can finish among the top 10 runners in Holmdel, then he will get a berth in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions on Wednesday, Nov. 21, also at Holmdel.
Not bad for the kid with the basketball name. He’s the county champion and a state sectional medalist. Who would have thought that?
“It’s a really good feeling,” Sutherland said. “I’ve thought about it a lot and it’s pretty impressive.”
“It’s very impressive,” Laboy added. “He loves running now. He’s totally into it. He’s come a long way. No question, he’s surprised a lot of people.”
Sutherland is a junior, so he has another year to improve on what he achieved this year in cross country.
Except there’s one thing Sutherland had to add.
“I still believe I’m better as a 400-meter runner,” Sutherland said. “But I’ll take this.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.