ATHLETE OF THE WEEK Prep’s Aerts wins two state gold medals

Attempt for more foiled by graduation

St. Peter’s Prep senior football/track standout Masaki Aerts
St. Peter’s Prep senior football/track standout Masaki Aerts

Honestly, Masaki Aerts wasn’t too keen on participating in track and field in the first place.

Aerts was a football player, through and through. He was also an excellent student, so getting a fine education was a priority.

But running track?

“For me, it was always football,” said the recently graduated student of St. Peter’s Prep. “The reason I initially tried out was to stay in shape for football. It was a way to keep in shape in the offseason. I never had any previous experience in track.”

But then Aerts started to believe that he could juggle both sports.

“I saw that football players like Jon Hilliman [a running back at Boston College] and Minkah [Fitzpatrick, the All-American cornerback from Alabama] did well in track and that sort of gave me the inspiration,” Aerts said. “I decided to take track more seriously.”

It took a while for Prep head track and field coach Chris Caulfield to recognize Aerts’ true talents.

“He ran with us all four years, but I remember after his sophomore year, I thought that he could be really good,” Caulfield said. “I remember telling Masaki that he could be real good.”

But by the time he was a junior, Aerts was sold on being a college football player.

“He was so set on going to college visits that he really didn’t compete with us during the indoor season,” Caulfield said.

Aerts was also battling a serious injury that kept him on the sidelines for a good portion of the indoor season during his junior year.

“I had hip issues,” Aerts said. “I had pressure on my hip area and my knee. It was an injury that happened over time and it kept getting worse and worse.”

In the 2016 finals of the Hudson County Track Association’s 100-meter dash during the indoor season, the world came crashing down upon Aerts.

“I just couldn’t run anymore,” Aerts said. “I felt the pain through the race. It was not a good time for me.”

“He always had tight muscles,” Caulfield said. “He basically had the equivalent of a strained hip flexor, but it wouldn’t go away. It was hard to watch because I saw how hard he pushed it. But the pain was too much. He really wanted to do well but he didn’t do well. You could see the frustration in his face. He loved the sport. He ran the fastest time in the prelims [preliminary round of the 100-meter dash] and then couldn’t finish. He wasn’t able to put it all together.”

A crippling injury is never good for an athlete. It’s even worse news for the track and field athlete, whose bread and butter are his legs. Caulfield didn’t know if Aerts would ever compete in track and field again.

“I didn’t know if he’d run,” Caulfield said. “And I could think of every reason not to run.”

Aerts kept Caulfield in the dark about whether he was going to return.

But there was no way that Aerts was going to leave the poor performance in the HCTCA finals last year as his legacy.

“After I had the injury and was on the sidelines, I realized how much I loved track,” Aerts said. “It was also how much I missed the sport. I missed the practices and the meets. It’s something I really liked to do. I knew I could come back and do some great things.”

After the 2016 football season, one that  saw the Marauders lose in a heartbreaker to Paramus Catholic in the NJSIAA Non-Public A finale, Aerts went up to Caulfield and told him about his decision.

“Masaki came right up to me and I was ecstatic,” Caulfield said. “He’s an invaluable member to our team and program. None of what we did as a team would have been possible without Masaki. It’s a blessing to have him on the team. He committed himself to do all of the little things. He dedicated himself to do all the right things both for him and the team. He warmed up the extra 15-to-20 minutes before hand. He had complete and utter dedication to the team and the sport. He now lives and breathes the sport.”

The Marauders captured team championships in the Hudson County Track Coaches Association and the NJSIAA Non-Public A North meets, capping a great season for the team.

For Aerts, the pinnacle came last Friday, when he won both the 100-meter dash and the 400-meter run at the NJSIAA Non-Public A state championships at Egg Harbor High School. He became the first athlete in the school’s history to win two gold medals at the state championships.

For his efforts, Aerts has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Aerts could have been a three-time state champion, but he had to attend his graduation from Grand and Warren instead on Saturday, forgoing the 200-meter dash and the relay.

“It was a great day and it’s a great feeling,” Aerts said. “I didn’t think it was possible. I was definitely not expecting any of this. It’s a blessed feeling. I didn’t know the history behind it. It’s a crazy feeling.”

“I knew he had the ability, but I never thought he would win both races,” Caulfield said. “We definitely knew his best event was the 400 [meter run]. His season has really been a historical run. The times and the accolades he’s earned have set him apart. He’s one of the finest Prep runners in history.”

Aerts will get one last chance to wear the maroon and white of the Marauders this weekend, when he competes in the NJSIAA Meet of Champions. Aerts will compete in the 400-meter run as well as two relays, the 4×100-meter relay and the 4×400-meter relay. The Marauders qualified for both relays.

After this meet, Aerts’ track and field career could be over. He’s headed to Dartmouth University — along with football and track teammate Dakari Falconer — to play football.

Aerts will more than likely major in liberal arts, but a pointed focus on economics.

But there’s a slight chance Aerts may try to compete in both sports.

“I thought it had the chance to be a historic season for me,” Aerts said.

Here’s another thing to think about: Aerts’ mother is a Japanese citizen, so he has eligibility to compete for Japan in the 2020 Olympics that are being held in — oh, yes, Tokyo — among other Japanese cities.

“That would be absolutely amazing,” Aerts said. “I’m still looking into that.” – Jim Hague