The official Dickinson High School nickname is Rams, but don’t tell that to the school’s boys’ cross country team.
Those kids have a different moniker that they like to go by. In their eyes, they’re the Wolfpack.
Yes, just like North Carolina State University.
The nickname came as an idea by veteran Dickinson assistant coach John Kennedy. It’s a name that has definitely stuck and it’s a name that has certainly fit this team to a tee.
“We don’t have the fastest team, but we have a good team that all runs together,” Kennedy said. “They all just stuck together like a pack of wolves, so that’s where it all began.”
“In practice, we all run together as a team,” said junior Tarick Awad. “So we wanted to do the same thing in races. As wolves run together in packs, so should we. That’s how we want to run. We use that as a motivation and it seems to work.”
It certainly worked last Saturday, when the Rams – oops, Wolfpack – rolled to the team title at the HCIAA Cross Country Championships.
Dickinson defeated runner-up St. Peter’s Prep by more than a 2-to-1 margin, with all seven of the team’s runners finishing among the top 25.
More impressively, the team lived up to their adopted nickname, with five runners finishing consecutively, placing fifth through ninth, all within a span of just four seconds.
Imagine that. Five runners hit the finish line, one after another, like a parade of maroon, gold and white, all within four ticks of the clock. It’s actually unheard of.
Gabriel Nunez is a senior who went to several different high schools searching for a true home, before settling upon Dickinson. He led the way with his fifth place finish, coming home in 17:09. Teammate Jose Aguilar, a sophomore, was right behind Nunez, almost hitting the tape simultaneously, also finishing in 17:09.
Next was Angel Alicea, one of the team’s captains. He came home in 17:11, good for seventh place, followed closely by Jose Rivera and Pedro Claudio, who both finished in 17:13.
“We have the same running style and we all want to stay close together,” said Claudio, also a junior. “If one goes faster and further, we all go faster and further. It’s a real big motivation to all of us to stick together.”
It really was a remarkable outpouring of teamwork, eventually leading to the school’s first HCIAA cross country championship since 1965.
The roots for the Wolfpack’s fine performance Saturday actually began a year ago, when the team won the Jersey City championship, the first title of any kind for a Dickinson cross country squad in decades.
It gave this young team an idea that they could become something special, with hard work and dedication, with an obsession on improvement, with a team-first mentality.
“We set our goals high at the beginning of the year,” Alicea said. “We showed dedication during the summer months by working out and training so hard together all the time. We knew that we wanted to show improvement this year.”
Last year, the team went to the HCIAA Championships, thinking they could conquer the world, but Dickinson was stopped short by Memorial.
“This year, we set our goals higher,” Alicea said. “We wanted to win the county.”
They needed help. It came in the form of Nunez, who never ran track before enrolling in Dickinson last spring. Nunez had been to other schools in Florida, as well as Hudson County, but never felt comfortable until he arrived at Dickinson.
He also never ran cross country before this fall.
“I really wanted to be part of a team, because it’s like being part of a family,” Nunez said. “It’s all a team effort. No one is jealous of anyone else. I like that. We’re all working hard for the same thing. I’m just happy to have found a home here, because this has been incredible.”
The camaraderie and togetherness of the Wolfpack is the creation of head coach Leo Laboy, who was once a soccer coach at Dickinson, but gave that up to coach the cross country team.
After all, it seemed like a natural progression, considering Laboy also coaches track and field during the winter and spring seasons.
“Three years ago, I gave up coaching soccer to concentrate on cross country,” Laboy said. “I needed to keep the kids together. We had some talented runners, but they needed to stay together. So they worked hard and just blossomed. They had a strong showing last year and they all bought into the system.”
Laboy loves the closeness of the squad.
“They really do everything together,” Laboy said. “They hang out together, eat together, do school work together. They’re a team everywhere, not just when they’re running. They help each other out with their school work.”
It must work, because all of the members of the Wolfpack are magnet honors students. So the team that runs together, studies together as well.
“I never have to worry about grades with these kids,” Laboy said. “They’re perfect. They all do the right things and they’re all credits to this school.”
More importantly, they’re not settling for their latest achievement. They all want to take the next two steps, meaning the Hudson County Track Coaches Association crown, something that Dickinson hasn’t claimed since 1979. They also want to make a mark in the upcoming NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV sectionals at Warinaco Park in Elizabeth.
“I don’t feel satisfied yet,” Aguilar said. “It’s like we need more. We want to get a ranking in the state, get recognized more than just locally. That’s what we’re all striving for.”
“We’re happy, but not satisfied,” Alicea said. “We know we can do better. We know we can go further.”
And remarkably, only Nunez is a senior. Everyone else returns. We could be hearing a lot more about the Wolfpack in the years to come.
Or even perhaps the weeks to follow as well.