SCOREBOARD The unlikeliest of local cross country stars

Snyder’s Bago goes after HCTCA crown

BLESSED YOUNG MAN – Benedictus Bago of Snyder has emerged as one of the top contenders for the Hudson County cross country championship this weekend.
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BLESSED YOUNG MAN – Benedictus Bago of Snyder has emerged as one of the top contenders for the Hudson County cross country championship this weekend.

Benedictus Bago was born in Tanzania, but his family decided to come to America and reside in Jersey City when Bago was 13 years old.
Needless to say, it was bit of a culture shock for Bago.
“My perception of the United States was that it was all like Hollywood,” Bago said. “I didn’t know any better. I didn’t think it would be that cold. I walked out of the airport in shorts. I couldn’t believe the wind. It was horrible. I was like, ‘This is the United States?’”
Bago learned how to speak English in his Tanzanian schools, where he also learned the native language of Swahili.
“We speak Swahili at home,” Bago said. “I learned English from the third grade.”
But his first days in the American school system were very difficult.
“It was kind of tough for me to make friends,” Bago said. “Because I was from another country, I was asked a bunch of different questions. ‘Do you hunt? Do you live in trees?’ See, it took a while for me to make friends.”
Bago was encouraged when he found some friends who played his favorite sport.
“I’m a soccer guy,” Bago said. “I love soccer.”
When Bago first enrolled in school, he was encouraged to join the soccer team at Snyder High School. Snyder head soccer coach Will Munoz spotted Bago and asked him to join the squad.
However, there was a bit of a problem. You see, Bago doesn’t attend Snyder High School, although he attends classes inside the building on Bergen Avenue.
Bago became a student at Innovation High School, a special school that is located in the basement area of Snyder. There are about 400 students who attend Innovation, but since Innovation doesn’t have athletic teams, then the students are eligible to participate under the Snyder banner.
So Bago first became a member of the fledgling Snyder junior varsity soccer team.
After the season, Munoz suggested that Bago try his hand at track and field.
“I was never interested in running,” Bago said. “I never thought I’d get into track. Coach Munoz said that he would let me do track in the spring.”
The first time Bago tried his hand at track and field, he almost walked away.
“I thought it was all crazy,” Bago said. “I wondered what I was doing there. I didn’t even know what I wanted to do with my life. I figured I could run fast, so I said that I was a sprinter.”
However, Bago’s career as a sprinter was very short lived.
“It was an awful time for me,” Bago said. “I then went over to the distance side. I figured that it was much easier for me.”
At the time, Amy Gutekunst was just getting her feet wet as a Snyder assistant track coach and teacher. A native of Pennsylvania and a graduate of Temple University, Gutekunst noticed Bago running at a workout and instantly saw something good brewing.
“I saw Benny run as a freshman and I saw his potential,” Gutekunst said. “I knew we had something special. I didn’t know the power with which he could run. But I knew that we had a kid with a lot of talent.”
During one freshman outdoor meet, Bago won four gold medals, winning the 800-meter run, the 1,600-meter run, the 3,200-meter run and the sprint medley relay. He was clocked at 2:12 in the first 800-meter run he ever competed in.
“I was really surprised,” Bago said. “It didn’t hit me yet that I was good. I didn’t have that competitive nature. It took a while before that was ingrained into me.”
Last year, when Bago was a sophomore, he was unleashed on the world at the Hudson County Track Coaches Association’s cross country championships, a race that he remarkably finished third in 16:27.
“What we’ve seen so far is that his best talent is in cross country,” Gutekunst said. “He loves the distances. The longer the distance the better. He has to transfer his speed to indoor and outdoor track, but he does much better with the distances.”
Bago has incredibly raced cross country just 11 times in his life, including the recent Greystone Invitational in Morris Plains, where he finished third among the smaller schools in 16:09.
He’s raced just twice this season, but will attempt to win the Hudson County Track Coaches Association championship at Bayonne County Park this weekend in a field that features Fahd Nasser of McNair Academic (the pre-race favorite) and Kevin Keegan of St. Peter’s Prep.
But Bago is right there with the big boys, the unlikeliest of county contenders and definitely the only one who is a native of Tanzania.
Bago is certain that he will be among the leaders in this competitive showdown.
“I never will let anyone outwork me,” Bago said. “I ran 45-to-50 miles a week during the summer. I did a lot of running on the waterfront. I ran in Lincoln Park. I ran in Bayonne. I’m now beginning to feel comfortable with the way I’m running.”
After this weekend, there is the NJSIAA North Jersey Section 2, Group III championships at Greystone Sat. Nov. 4, followed by the Group III meet at Holmdel Park on Saturday, Nov. 11.
“I expect him to move on to the Groups,” Gutekunst said. “We’ve tried to keep his legs fresh for the end of the season. Our goal is to get him to advance to a higher level.”
Gutekunst was asked if she was surprised by Bago’s emergence as a top threat.
“I don’t think I’m surprised at all,” said Gutekunst, now in her second year as head coach at Snyder. “He’s progressed nicely.”
Bago said that he would like to run in college. He has a 3.5 grade point average at Innovation and is ranked 14th in his class.
And it’s safe to say that Bago is comfortable in the United States now – cold or no cold. He’s been lucky. It’s been a warmer-than-average October here.
And as for the unique first name?
“I’m named after my father,” Bago said. “They found a Latin name for me which was close to my father’s name.”
In Latin, Benedictus means “blessed.”
It’s safe to say that Benedictus Bago is most certainly that.

Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.