OLMC’s track and field team won its second consecutive Catholic Track League Division B championship in 2018 just six years after the program nearly folded.
It wasn’t long ago that Our Lady of Mount Carmel Regional School in Berlin didn’t know if it would field a track and field team anymore.
Theo Zulueta, a parent of two students at the school, was approached to be the track team’s head coach in 2012 and was told if he didn’t take the volunteer position, the track program might fold.
Six years later, Our Lady of Mount Carmel has one of the best track and field teams in the Catholic Track League, an organization consisting of Catholic secondary schools from around South Jersey. OLMC won its second consecutive Catholic League Division B championship after finishing in first place at the league’s Meet of Champions in late May.
Zulueta said the program’s transformation is a credit not just to the school community, but also the community of St. Simon Stock Parish. OLMC is a part of St. Simon Stock, and kids who are part of the parish’s CCD program and have parents who are parishioners at the church are eligible to compete for the track team.
“There’s no way this would have happened without the parents,” Zulueta said. “It’s been fantastic.”
When Zulueta took the job, the team was very small, with only three eighth graders and a core group of fifth-grade athletes. Zulueta’s first task was to recruit more athletes.
“That was a lot of marketing and help from the engaged parents that said, ‘Wow, my daughter’s class and my son’s class, they need to know about this,’” Zulueta said.
Zulueta would hand out fliers, attend school events and talk to as many kids as possible to get them to try out for the team. Brendan Johnson and Nathan Garcia, two recent eighth-grade graduates, recall these recruitment efforts.
“I knew they had a track team,” Johnson said. “I wanted to try it out and started in third grade.”
“They handed out fliers because they wanted kids to get on the team and start running,” Garcia added. “It looked interesting and fun to me.”
Since CCD students are eligible to compete, there are a number of athletes from Berlin Community School on the team. Rising eighth grader Trevor Edwards is one of the BCS students on Our Lady of Mount Carmel’s track team.
“In fifth grade, I was beating everyone in the mile,” he said. “My school didn’t have a track team because I go to BCS.”
The track team consists of students from grades three to eight. Because there’s such a wide grade range and athletes coming from multiple schools, a lot of the students have made new friends through the team.
“I love going to the meets and practices and hanging out with my friends,” Edwards said.
Zulueta focused on making the program basic and fun for the students. The team holds practices once or twice a week so kids can also participate in other activities. The program doesn’t have a track on campus and typically uses the track at Winslow Township High School for practices and home meets.
Zulueta competed in track as a kid and was on OLMC’s track team in 1988. He used the lessons he learned when he was younger to teach his athletes.
“I looked at it how I ran,” he said. “How do you run faster? It’s your arms, not your legs. You keep your form by pumping your arms. I would build lessons based on that.”
“The kids, they’ve all gone over the basics,” Garcia said. “They mastered the basics. We tried really hard to put them into the events where they would thrive.”
Even when the team was constantly finishing behind other competitive schools such as St. Peter’s School in Merchantville, Zulueta was convinced his team could win a championship. The program finally achieved its goal in 2017 and defended its title successfully in 2018.
“When (Johnson) was in fourth grade, I kept telling him and the fifth grade class, you don’t see it, but you’re championship material in this league,” Zulueta said.
Members of the team believe the program’s success over the past two seasons is a victory not just for the students, but for the entire community.
“It’s not just our school,” Johnson said. “It’s the entire parish.”