The truth be told, Carolina Herrera always thought she would be a successful softball player.
“I played basketball and softball my whole life,” said Herrera, the recent North Bergen High School graduate. “When I was in eighth grade, I always pictured myself as a softball player.”
But when she enrolled at North Bergen, she joined the cross country team and became enamored with becoming a track and field athlete.
“When I first went to the Penn Relays and entered the stadium [Franklin Field], that was it,” Herrera said. “I fell in love with it all. It encouraged me to keep going.”
Herrera would then embark on one of the best track and field careers in North Bergen’s rich history.
She ran cross country as a freshman, but really didn’t like the distances.
“I didn’t know anything else,” Herrera said. “I didn’t like it at first, but I liked being with the team. We were all together, going up against good components. I got better at cross country.”
Herrera said that she finished among the top three cross country runners on the freshman team, but she began to blossom as an indoor track and field competitor.
“Whatever the coaches told me to do, I did it,” Herrera said. “I never said anything. I would just shut up and run.”
Herrera soon found her niche – as a dominant sprinter.
“When I was little, I was always fast,” Herrera said. “I would go to [North Hudson Braddock] Park and boys would always want to race against me. But I beat them all. That’s when I thought that I should do it. I never thought I would pursue track.”
Herrera would eventually go on to win the Hudson County Track Coaches Association indoor gold medals in the 55-meter dash, the 400-meter run and the long jump. She earned four medals at the HCTCA outdoor championships, winning the 100-meter dash, finishing second in the 400-meter run and long jump and third in the 400-meter run.
Soon after, Herrera went to the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 1, Group IV meet and won the 100-meter dash, was second in the long jump and third in the 200-meter run, despite battling a series of injuries.
For her efforts, Herrera has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year for the 2013-2014 scholastic sports campaign.
Herrera becomes the first North Bergen female athlete to ever receive the year-end honor. She received her award last week from Hudson Reporter Newspaper chain co-publisher David Unger.
Herrera said that it was a little difficult doubling in both the 55 and 400-meter runs during the indoor season.
“In the 55, I don’t even get a chance to breathe,” Herrera said. “I just go. But in the 400, I had to learn how to breathe. I had to pace myself. I had to learn when to kick it in. It was a learning process. There were some races, I was put in the 800 [meter run] and that was the toughest thing I ever did. There’s such a big difference.”
North Bergen girls’ track and field head coach Elson Smajlaj (pronounced SMILE-AY) said that Herrera was willing to do anything and everything for the team.
“She has an unsurpassed amount of potential,” Smajlaj said. “She was the hardest working girl and she was the most athletic girl. The hardest part for me was deciding what event to focus on. She did all the running from 55 all the way up to 800. She also did the long jump, the triple jump and the high jump on some occasions if I needed her. She built the foundation for the entire team and made us strong.”
Added Smajlaj, “I’d ask her to do any event and she would never say no. She was very coachable. She was always so much about the team first.”
Herrera had to endure her share of injuries during her career. A lot of other athletes would have simply walked away, but Herrera persevered and thrived.
“I’ve always been hurt since freshman year,” Herrera said.
She tore a quadriceps muscle as a freshman, then fractured both of her ankles, had tendinitis in both knees and had three herniated discs in her back. After meets, she wore more ice and bandages than Stephen Crane’s main character Henry Fleming in “The Red Badge of Courage.” She was wrapped better than a deli sandwich.
“Even with all the injuries, I still went to practice every day,” Herrera said. “I never wanted to give up, because I would feel like I would fall back and everyone would move past me.”
“She would never take a day off,” Smajlaj said. “Her dedication and courage was an inspiration to the rest of the team.”
Yet, she still managed to win the state sectional gold medal in the 100-meter dash.
“That’s her main event,” Smajlaj said. “She’s just explosive out of the blocks. You look at her at the starting line and she doesn’t look like much. But once the gun goes off, she’s so explosive.”
Herrera had no idea that she won the race.
“On the county level, I felt like I could win,” Herrera said. “But at the state sectionals, I couldn’t believe it. My friend had to tell me that I actually won. It was hard to believe.”
She became the first North Bergen girl to win a state sectional championship in almost 20 years.
Herrera was all set to compete at the NJSIAA Group IV championships, when the injury bug just caught up to her.
“I thought I was ready for it, but something hit me and it took a toll,” Herrera said. “My body just couldn’t withstand the pain anymore. It broke my heart that I couldn’t keep running.”
Herrera will now move on to St. Peter’s University, where she has received a full scholarship and will run for the Peacocks in the fall.
“I always wanted a Division I scholarship, but I thought I wasn’t going to get it,” Herrera said. “When St. Peter’s called me, it wasn’t my first choice, but I visited and found out that it was the place for me. I’m excited to be going there. It’s the place where I’m supposed to be.”
And Herrera will study physical therapy, because of all the time she spent receiving medical attention over the years.
“Ever since my freshman year, I’ve been going to physical therapy at different places,” Herrera said. “I really wanted to be like them, helping people get better. I want to help others out like they helped me.”
Smajlaj isn’t surprised at Herrera’s vast accomplishments.
“I was just waiting for it to happen,” Smajlaj said. “She was like a flower. You give it water and some sun and you wait for it to blossom. That’s what happened with Carol. She just blossomed. Give her proper training and the rest was easy.”
Herrera was stunned to receive the Reporter’s top honor for local female athletes.
“It means the whole world to me,” Herrera said. “There are a lot of great athletes in the county in all sports. It’s amazing. I’m very happy.”
“Her modesty is unparalleled,” Smajlaj said. “I never heard her boast or brag. She was a joy to be around.”
And she leaves a legacy as being the top female athlete in Hudson County this year.
HUDSON REPORTER FEMALE ATHLETES OF THE YEAR
1994-1995-Cheri Selby, St. Dominic Academy
2000-2001-Tiffany Aciz, Secaucus
2003-2004-Mercedes Nunez, Memorial
2004-2005-Christine Capetola, St. Dominic Academy
2005-2006-Nicole Degenhardt, Secaucus
2006-2007-Leslie Njoku, McNair Academic & Cory Roesing, Secaucus
2007-2008-Jenna Totaro, Secaucus
2008-2009-Jennifer Mateo, Union City
2009-2010-Ashley Barron, Hoboken
2010-2011-Shannon Waters, Secaucus
2011-2012-Sybil Lynch, Hoboken
2012-2013-Danielle Roesing, Secaucus
2013-2014 Carolina Herrera, North Bergen
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.