It’s been said, especially in New Jersey track and field circles, that the hardest state championship to earn is the first one.
Need proof? Look no further than the storied St. Dominic Academy track team, which has enjoyed a ton of success over the last four decades, but never won an NJSIAA state relay title before last year.
A lot of that was because St. Dominic was situated among the NJSIAA Non-Public A classification schools, a lot more competitive group with bigger schools.
“We were always there,” said veteran SDA head track and field coach John Nagel. “We’re always in the hunt. We might not have won, but we were always contenders.”
But a few years ago, a dip in enrollment placed SDA among the Non-Public B schools, so it meant a better chance to compete on the state level.
So when the Blue Devils headed to the Bennett Center in Toms River in January of 2018, there was a better chance of the team winning the NJSIAA Non-Public B state relay championship.
Sure enough, the Blue Devils did win their first-ever state title that fateful day last January, so now there was a slight bit of pressure on the team to try to duplicate the feat again recently at the Bennett Center.
“We gave them a game plan and they executed,” said Nagel, who doubles as the school’s athletic director. “The kids work hard and they’re good. It was very much in the plans to do it again. There are no changes in what we’re doing. I personally love relay meets. I always have. We have to spread people out. We don’t have a shot put or pole vault, but we were able to get enough points in the other events to do well. There were points to have in each event we were in.”
The Blue Devils did it exactly according to the way it was drawn up and they captured their second straight NJSIAA state relay championship.
But in only one event, the high jump relay, did the Blue Devils win and collect the 10 team points that comes with a gold medal. The Blue Devils had to earn this state title by scoring eight points here and six points there.
“That’s important,” Nagel said. “They all pitch in. They all do their part. It was all part of the plan. It was not accidental. They all put the time in. They’re focused on what they have to do. It makes it simple, but it also makes it fun. I enjoyed the hell out of it.”
While the Blue Devils only won gold in the high jump relay (with Logan Hart and Suhayla Johnson doing the honors there), they did finish second in three events, third in two events and fourth in another. That’s good enough consistency to bring home the state championship.
The Blue Devils were second in the 4×200-meter relay (Hart, Johnson, Isabel DeBari and Milani Bethel), second in the 4×400-meter relay (Kayla Sullivan, Andrea Tlacuilo, Megan Van Alsytne and Bethel) and second in the 4×800-meter relay (DeBari, Tlacuilo, Van Alstyne and Sullivan).
They were also third in the distance medley relay (DeBari, Johnson, Sullivan and Van Alstyne), third in the sprint medley relay (Johnson, Madison Cortes, Bethel and Makenzie Kwiatkowski) and fourth in the shuttle hurdles relay (Bethel, Cortes, Hart and Caroline O’Donnell).
That’s consistency in the truest sense.
Bethel, a sophomore, had a fantastic meet.
“She’s very good,” Nagel said. “Her range is remarkable. I love having that range. She has the ability to do a lot of things. She’s just turned 16 [years old].”
“When I first started high school, I never thought I’d be able to do all this,” Bethel said. “I didn’t think I’d have the stamina to run all the distance races [like cross country, where she was also among the top runners in the area]. But I want to be able to give my all for the team. I think it helped all of us that we did it last year. We weren’t going to let up for anyone. We all knew what we were capable of. We had our goals and had our coaches keeping score. Every point counted. I love doing my part for the team.”
Even though she’s only a sophomore, it doesn’t hurt for Bethel to start thinking about the future.
“I definitely see running in my future and I’d love to be a [NCAA] Division I athlete,” Bethel said.
Johnson, a junior, was once one of Bethel’s fiercest foes, especially when the two would face off in grammar school events. But now, the two are teammates.
“I love having her on my team now,” Johnson said of Bethel. “We’re like best friends now. We performed our hearts out and it obviously showed.”
DeBari is one of the few seniors on the SDA roster.
“I never thought I’d get a chance to be part of this,” DeBari said. “I didn’t even know what cross country was before I got to St. Dominic. I didn’t know about the tradition. Now, I know. I knew this one wasn’t going to be easy. We had to work hard to get this one. I think the energy of the whole team pushed us through.”
Sullivan, also a sophomore, knows that teamwork is the key ingredient.
“I think if you go into an event and you don’t have a positive attitude, it could really hurt,” Sullivan said. “I really love relay meets. It’s my favorite to run, because you always have someone else to run for. You’re running for your teammates. You need everyone to come together, all four runners at the same time. We just need to keep that positive attitude. We all had high expectations, especially after winning last year. I think that made us all want this one more.”
And perhaps the best is yet to come for the Blue Devils.
“I think this definitely boosts our confidence,” Johnson said. “I feel confident that we’ve started something that the younger generation can pick up on. It’s an amazing feeling.”
“It gives us a glimpse of what we can do moving forward,” DeBari said. “And it gives me confidence that I can do it. It’s my senior year and I hope to run in college. I want to be part of a team like this.”
DeBari plans on majoring in health science, with her eye on nursing.
“This was definitely one of the most fun events I was ever a part of,” Sullivan said. “We’re all ready to go out and do it again. It was a fight well fought and we got the outcome we wanted.”