Before Scott Emmerling took over the girls’ cross country program at Union City High School, there was barely a program.
One year, there were six girls that competed – not even enough to field a full team for scoring purposes.
But Emmerling, a product of the Palisades Park program headed by the legendary Frank Donahue, thought that he could make some changes with the Soaring Eagles, as long as the runners developed the pack mentality that Donahue used.
Basically, it encourages runners to run within their means, yet keep pace, stay stride for stride with their teammates. That philosophy generally leads to team success.
“We’ve never had an individual challenge for the title,” Emmerling said. “But we’ve been able to get a good amount of girls into the top 25. As long as they try to stay with the pack.”
In 2014, Emmerling’s team was good enough to capture the Hudson County Track Coaches Association’s team title. Last year, the Soaring Eagles were able to repeat.
But this year, it was going to be tough for Union City, with traditional programs such as St. Dominic Academy and Kearny threatening.
“We just try to take it year by year,” Emmerling said. “But this year, I was so nervous, especially after I saw the results from the South Hudson meet last week. I saw that the front of the pack was very talented. We just needed to have a tighter pack.”
One of the Soaring Eagles’ top runners is junior Rachel Malkowski, who wasn’t even running last year. A year ago, Malkowski was a member of the Union City soccer team.
“I found out that I had more of a passion for running,” Malkowski said. “I went from practicing soccer every single day, going to camps and clinics all the time. My parents invested a lot of time and money into my soccer career between club soccer and high school. It was hard for me to tell them that I was giving up soccer because I found my passion in running.”
Malkowski played center midfield in soccer.
“I did a lot of running around in soccer, so I guess it just carried over,” Malkowski said. “It’s just something that I needed to do. I needed a new start and cross country is perfect for me. I just love running.”
The former soccer player ran a 20:33.20, which was good for fifth place overall.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Malkowski said. “We all pulled together as a team. We went out in the pouring rain last Thursday to train to get ready for the counties. We do practice hard and do our best to win.”
Senior Anay Castro is another key member of the Soaring Eagles.
“She was a JV runner whose best time was 29:05,” Emmerling said. “She just decided to change her diet and became more dedicated. I told her to give me a year and see what happened.”
“Emmerling saw me in history class,” Castro said. “He said that I looked like a runner and convinced me to think about it. Well, it’s the best thing I ever did.”
Castro lost 20 pounds, changed her lifestyle and became a better runner. She cut her best time by five minutes last summer and at the county championships, she finished 11th overall in 21:05.70, a full eight minutes faster than she was clocked last year.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Emmerling said.
“I can’t believe it,” Castro said. “I just ate healthier foods, kept running and saw my times dropping. It’s all a dream. I can’t believe it.”
Malkowski and Castro are two of the reasons why the Soaring Eagles won the HCTCA title for a third straight year. It’s not known whether any Union City team has ever won three county championships in a row before.
“It’s amazing,” Emmerling said. “I talk to the girls all the time about how winning is great and they absorb everything. To think that we have three county titles in row is amazing. Maybe some of what Frank Donahue taught me is running off. There’s something magical here. [Former Houston Rockets head coach] Rudy Tomjanovich once said, ‘Don’t ever underestimate the heart of a champion.’ Well, we’re champions. We have such a phenomenal group. Maybe I’m still in the moment a little, because I can’t believe this.”
Other key contributors include junior Hailee Scarafile (eighth), junior Emily Garcia (13th), junior Niurkelys Colindres (14th), senior Cristina Cazares (18th) and junior Allyson Martinez (31st overall).
“It’s amazing that we’ve won three in a row,” Malkowski said. “I can tell everyone with pride that we won three in a row. We put in a lot of work to make it happen.”
The Soaring Eagles now move on to the NJSIAA state sectionals this weekend at Garret Mountain in West Paterson.
The individual champion was Weeshamar Senatus of Hudson Catholic, with Jasmin Lin of McNair Academic second.
The Memorial boys won the team title, with Younass Barkouch of McNair as the individual champion, Fahd Nasser of McNair second and Benedictus Bago of Snyder third.
The No. 2 character among the Top 25 Sports Characters over the last 25 years is Mike Reilly, the former McNair Academic multi-sport coach and teacher who is now the voice of all the Jersey City public school football games at Caven Point Cochrane Stadium.
For years, Reilly coached boys’ soccer at Dickinson and boys’ basketball at McNair Academic, pulling off that rarity for many years. He’s also perhaps the biggest basketball fan in the county, going to countless college games in the area. The last few years, Reilly was the assistant coach at Kearny High, but decided to retire at the end of last season.
Reilly is a total fixture in Hudson County sports, someone who has adopted Hudson County as his own and now sits permanently in the place of top sports characters in the last 25 years.
Union City baseball coach Chipper Benway is running for the Hoboken Board of Education on the same ticket called Parents United with Jessica Nelson and Jennifer Evans…
Next week, we’ll crown No. 1, as well as The Great Hagueini dusting off his crystal ball and turban and wand for the first round of state playoff predictions…-Jim Hague