There was a time when the Memorial High School boys’ cross country program was among the best and most feared in the state of New Jersey.
The Tigers produced countless county and state championships, made household names out of runners like former West New York mayor Sal Vega, and brought a lot of pride and prestige to West New York.
There were teams coached by track stalwarts like Bob Van Zanten and Rudy Verdino, and champions like William Cannon, Anderson Tejada, Al Solano and Mike Andino.
When Julio Lopez took over the program in the 1990s, he was able to keep the winning tradition alive, winning five consecutive Hudson County Track Coaches Association championships from 1993 through 2003 and winning again in 2007.
But the Memorial program fell off a bit in recent years. Dickinson emerged as the top boys’ cross country program in the area. It appeared as if the Tigers had fallen by the wayside. Even veteran coach Lopez took a leave of absence from coaching for two years as the Tigers struggled to compete at a higher level.
Lopez has since returned to his coaching position at Memorial and he knew that his team was poised to make a resurgent climb back into prominence this season.
“We basically had to start from scratch,” Lopez said. “We had a lot of guys coming back from last year. We ran some good times in the spring, so that gave me a little bit of hope. All these kids needed was a little bit of confidence. I knew they could do well. It was just a matter of time.”
It was also a matter of times as well. The Tigers have a unit that collectively run fairly close together.
“They have a lot of balance in their times,” Lopez said. “They run in a bunch, like maybe 30 seconds or so within each other. That was the goal in a lot of the workouts. They really worked hard and run together.”
Lopez didn’t know how good his team was before taking them to the highly competitive Passaic County Coaches Invitational at Garret Mountain in Woodland Park last weekend.
“This was the first time I was able to see how they would compete,” Lopez said. “I didn’t know.”
But senior Luis Pairol set the tone for the team, going out with the lead pack in the Varsity Group 4 race.
“He was leading the whole race,” Lopez said. “After the two-and-a-half mile mark, he said he felt a little tight, but he was winning the race.”
Pairol still managed to finish sixth overall in 17:06.18, on a soggy course in heavy humidity.
Fellow senior Bernie Joa was next, crossing the line less than a second after Pairol – proof of that close competition among the Tigers.
Guillermo Reynoso was next. The sophomore Reynoso was 15th overall in 17:24.61. Senior Roy Bautista was 20th in 17:38.01 and senior Michael Salinas was 28th overall in 17:53.61.
That’s five Tiger runners all finishing among the top 30 and all finishing within a minute of each other. In cross country, if you have solid balance, you have a chance to win championships.
And that’s what the Tigers did last Saturday at Garret Mountain. They won the team title, outdistancing perennially powerful programs like North Hunterdon, Randolph, and Middletown North in the process.
It marked the first time that Memorial won a team title at the Passaic County Coaches meet since 2001. It was definitely a return to glory for the Tiger harriers and proof that maybe they’re ready to reclaim the county’s premier spot when the HCTCA championships are held later this month.
The Tigers will head to another prestigious meet, the Shore Coaches Invitational this weekend at Holmdel Park, with the fastest team average in the entire state. It’s definitely a remarkable turnaround.
Lopez believes that his team will get even stronger when sophomore Jonathan Matamoros becomes eligible to run with the varsity.
“Eventually, he will be one of our best runners,” Lopez said.
That only helps the incredible balance that the Tigers have already displayed.
“The last few years have been really tough going for these kids,” Lopez said. “We took our lumps a little. It feels good just to be able to have a good group of kids who are ready to run. They’re a nice group, a nice pack, who all run together. There really isn’t one who stands out from the rest. It’s whoever wants it more that day. We went through a lot of pain and disappointment, but this was a nice first step.”
And maybe this was the first sign that the Tigers are ready to make a full return to glory.
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.
You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com