If you ask Jennifer Mateo what her height and weight statistics are, the recent graduate of Union City High School will not hesitate to answer.
“I stand about 5 foot tall, right on the money,” Mateo said. “And I weigh less than 100 pounds, probably around 95 pounds. A lot of people laugh when I say that, but it’s true. I think because I’m small that people always underestimate me. I’m not going to say I work harder because of my height or size. Is it motivation for me? Somewhat. But I’m always motivated no matter what. Maybe when people look at me, they think they can take advantage of me and push me around. But I use that to my advantage.”
Mateo has never backed down from a physical challenge, either when she was competing for Union Hill High School, where she attended for three years prior to the merger of the two long-existing schools, or the newly formed Union City High School this year.
“I do get beat up a little, but nothing stops me,” Mateo said.
In fact, she’s a lot like the Energizer Bunny. Mateo just keeps going and going and going, non-stop, all year round.
In the fall, Mateo was a standout cross country runner, finishing second in the HCIAA championships and third in the Hudson County Track Coaches Association meet. Her times, running 20:46 in the HCTCA meet, were downright spectacular, especially for someone who really didn’t run competitively until her junior year.
“I joined the team just to get conditioned for basketball,” Mateo said. “I never thought I would become good at it. But I always want to be good at anything I do. I always push myself to be good. But I knew that I had to be in good shape for basketball. I didn’t know that I would become this good.”
She had her best season in the winter months, serving as the point guard for the surprisingly successful Soaring Eagles girls’ basketball team. Mateo was the team’s leading scorer, averaging close to 13 points per game to go along with eight assists and five steals, earning First Team All-Area honors. Mateo scored 19 points in a huge upset win over eventual HCIAA Coviello champion Bayonne, the lone county loss the Bees suffered.
In the spring, Mateo turned her attention to the softball diamond as a slick fielding shortstop, batting .380 with 25 RBI as the team’s leadoff hitter. She also earned All-Area honors as well in softball.
It was the combination of all three talents that enabled Mateo to secure the 2008-09 Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year award, becoming the first athlete from any Union City school to ever earn the honor.
The Hudson Reporter Newspapers chain presents awards to the top female and male athletes in the paper’s circulation area and has done so every year since 1991. The Reporter Male Athlete of the Year will be announced next week.
Mateo didn’t have the easiest of times growing up in Union City. Born in the Dominican Republic, the diminutive Mateo found refuge and solace in sports, beginning to play basketball almost as soon as she arrived here with her family. But her parents separated when she was in sixth grade and she had to help with the care of her younger brother, Eric, now 12, who is a special needs student.
“I always had to be the one who grew up more than anyone else,” Mateo said. “My mother really didn’t understand much about sports, but I just loved to play and wanted to play all the time. I think the last time I grew any was in fourth grade. I grew three inches that year and then just stopped. It’s really kind of sad.”
Mateo said the last statement with a sly smile, because she knows that her height – or lack thereof – never once served as a deterrent.
“I don’t know why, but size was never a factor with me,” Mateo said. “I was always pretty fast, so I used that to my advantage. And I don’t get tired easily. Even when I think I’m tired, I just keep going. Something inside me is ticking and I just keep going. I think it’s because I love to play so much.”
All three of Mateo’s coaches sang her praises.
“Jennifer never tried track before her junior year, but she quickly became a natural,” said veteran cross country coach Amador Rodriguez. “It was easy to see, once you saw her ability, that she could be very good at running. She works hard in all three sports. She’s dedicated and focused. She was always in her own zone. She always wanted to be the best, in whatever she does, in whatever she tries. I think all of her coaches saw that right away in Jen. I think if hopscotch was a sport, she would be All-County in hopscotch.”
Union City softball coach Jim Tricarico, who was once the head baseball coach at Emerson High School some 20 years ago, also knew right away that Mateo was someone special.
“I didn’t care what her height was,” Tricarico said. “She played big all the time. She got by with her determination, with her heart of a lion. She knew the game of softball in and out, simply because she followed the game of baseball and absorbed everything by simply watching. But Jen is also a very gifted athlete. A lot of what she does is pure instinct. She also has a fire in her that not a lot of athletes, either boys or girls, have. She wants to succeed in everything she does.”
Added Tricarico, “In this new era of specializing in just one sport, it’s amazing to see someone like Jen, someone who isn’t blessed with the best physical skills in the world, with the ability to do as well as she has done. She’s the best we have to offer and she’s the reason why we’re all in this business of coaching. She’s just an amazing kid.”
Union City girls’ basketball coach Charlie Roussel went one step further.
“I’ve been coaching high school basketball on all levels, both boys and girls, for more than 20 years and Jen is by far the most tenacious player I ever coached,” Roussel said. “She just wants it more than most. While the other sports might not have been bothered by her size, basketball is a sport where size matters. When I coached against her [Roussel was the head coach at Emerson], she was the focal point and we tried to stop her. When I took this position, she became the focal point of the team. It was mind boggling to see someone so quick change directions so fast. And she never got tired and she never came out of the game. I couldn’t afford to take her out. She had a different kind of stamina with constant energy. I never saw anything like it.”
Added Roussel, “It was amazing to see someone with that size dictate and control an entire game, no matter who we were playing. It’s just not normal to see a little girl do what Jen does.”
To take Mateo’s accomplishments even one step further, she graduated from Union City High School as the No. 17 student in the Class of 2009 and was a member of the National Honor Society.
“Jen Mateo will be the standard which we compare other student/athletes to,” Roussel said.
“Athletically, academically, socially, she’s the standard. Getting this award is just the cherry on the sundae.”
Mateo will now take her immense athletic talents to Drew University in Madison, where she hopes to play both basketball and softball. Mateo hopes to major in business administration at Drew.
“I never thought I’d get a chance to go to college, but I’m going on a scholarship, which takes the burden off my mother,” Mateo said. “It makes me feel good and feel proud that this has all happened. I never expected to win an award like this. It’s a huge honor and I’m so very grateful. I’m always up for challenges, so I think I like the challenge of playing both sports in college. It’s going to be tough, but I’m ready.”
Mateo hopes that her ability to overcome adversity is a motivation for others.
“I can only hope that people look at me and get inspired,” Mateo said. “I hope that people will remember me. I was small, I’m Hispanic and I never let anything get in my way. I hope others see what I did and can see that they shouldn’t let anything ever stop them from doing what they want to do. I’m proof.” Q
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.