ATHLETE OF THE WEEK A late bloomer

McNair Academic runner Oazi proves better late than never

Tauqeer Qazi really never gave much thought to eventually becoming a standout long-distance runner. A native of Pakistan who came to the United States and Jersey City at the age of 5, Qazi’s knowledge of sports was limited to one – cricket.

“They play cricket in Pakistan,” Qazi said. “Only cricket.”

So when he enrolled at McNair Academic High School three years ago, Qazi showed a limited interest in joining the track team.

“I never ran before, but I knew I had no speed whatsoever,” Qazi said. “I first signed up for track with my friends, but then I got lazy and didn’t go out. I didn’t try.”

However, later during his freshman year, Qazi got the inspiration he needed during a Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) event.

“We had to run a mile and I came in first,” Qazi said. “I was told I ran a fast time for the mile. I thought it was impressive because I was also fasting (honoring the celebration of the Muslim religion’s Ramadan). When you’re fasting, you’re not as physically strong.”

But Qazi now knew that he had the ability to be a runner.

“I thought maybe I could do this,” Qazi said.

As a sophomore, Qazi joined the McNair Academic indoor track team.

“When he came out for track, he showed some signs early,” said McNair Academic head coach Matt Hogan. “He wasn’t in great shape to start, but he had stamina. He also had a pretty natural running gait. So he definitely had potential.”

But there was no way either runner or coach could have fathomed that Qazi would develop into the school’s first-ever male cross country state sectional champion.

There was some work to do when Qazi first joined the team. The first thing was to find his niche.

“He did a lot of things early on,” Hogan said. “He did hurdles, the 800 meters.”

“Coach (Hogan) had me run the 800 meters at first, but I wasn’t that good,” Qazi said. “When the time came for the (NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I outdoor) state sectional my sophomore year, he put me in the mile, because it was the only event available that day.”

So Qazi ran the 1,600 meters for the very first time at the state sectional meet two years ago. In his first attempt, Qazi ran a 4:57. Running sub-five minute miles is a standard that veteran runners try to achieve. Qazi did it in his first time out.

“Right there and then, I knew he was a distance runner,” Hogan said.

“I was surprised by it,” Qazi said.

Hogan then approached the idea of becoming a cross country runner to Qazi.

“I think he just enjoyed the longer distances,” Hogan said. “He can handle a lot of work. He pushes himself. He’s really the most distance oriented kid I’ve ever coached. Some runners are afraid to pile on the distance. Tauqeer encourages it. The more you push him, the better he responds.”

“I do like the longer distances,” Qazi said. “I thought it was going to be painful to do, but it’s all about pushing myself.”

Qazi had a successful junior season in cross country and finished second at the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships.

“It gave me the motivation to do well this year,” Qazi said.

“He finished 11th (at the All-Group I state championships in Holmdel) last year, just missing out of qualifying for the Meet of Champions,” Hogan said. “He was looking forward to this year.”

Qazi won the HCIAA championship two weeks ago, then ran into his first taste of adversity last week, when he finished third at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships.

“He felt a little heavy that day,” Hogan said.

“It was probably the lowest point I’ve had as a runner,” Qazi said. “I know I beat everyone by 15 seconds the week before and I come back and see my time increase by a minute. I was very disappointed. It made me more determined to do well the next week.”

On Saturday, Qazi went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group I championships at Warinaco Park in Elzabeth to try to redeem himself for the poor performance the week prior.

Qazi was stellar, winning the event in 17:30, outdistancing the field by a full 50 seconds, becoming the first-ever state sectional cross country male runner in the school’s history. The school has enjoyed several female track standouts, but Qazi is the first male to earn the distinction.

And for his efforts, Qazi has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Although he won by almost a full minute over Chris Mignone of Whippany Park, Qazi was somewhat upset with his performance.

“I was hoping to run a sub 17 (minute) and didn’t do it,” Qazi said. “I wish there was someone else in the race who could push me. It feels all right to win the race, but I wish I could have done better.”

“His goal was to break 17,” Hogan said. “He wanted to win the race, but he really didn’t have that much of a challenge. By the first three-quarter mark, he made his move and he was gone. He was in a lot better shape this week than last.”

Qazi now heads to Holmdel this weekend for the overall Group I championships. He will try once again to break 17 minutes and hopes to finish among the top 10 at the meet, so he could move on to the Meet of Champions this year in his final cross country season.

“I think I can finish among the top five perhaps and go on to the Meet of Champions,” Qazi said. “Because this is my last year, I want to make sure I qualify.”

Hogan said that Qazi is an excellent student and a credit to his team.

“He’s pretty quiet, but he has a good sense of humor,” Hogan said. “And when it comes to training, he’s a warrior. He always chooses the tougher workout. I think winning the state sectional takes away a little of the bitterness that he had from losing in the county meet.”

Needless to say, it’s been a tremendous ascent, from a kid who didn’t know a single thing about running to state sectional cross country champion. It’s not everyday that a native of Pakistan wins a state championship.

“At first, I thought I was the only Pakistani runner in the world,” Qazi said. “But I found another at NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology).”

NJIT has a sophomore runner named Umar Saeed, who is also a native of Pakistan.

It could very well be that the two are teammates next year, because Qazi hopes to apply to the school and study “something in the medical field,” Qazi said.

Qazi has a 3.71 grade point average and has a fine score in the Scholastic Aptitude Tests.

Qazi said that he has only one regret.

“I don’t like to use it as an excuse, but I just wish I started earlier,” Qazi said. “I’ve learned to set my standards high. The only way to get better is to set the standards high. If I started earlier, who knows what could have happened?”

He’s still carved a niche of his own – as McNair Academic’s first-ever state sectional champion in boys’ cross country. Not bad for a kid who, once upon a time, only knew cricket. – Jim Hague


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