It may seem like sheer happenstance that senior Dennis Fortuna first joined the cross county team at Triton Regional High School.
Having never run cross country or track before high school, Fortuna first visited Triton as an eighth grader four years ago, along with his fellow classmates at Mary E. Volz Middle School in Runnemede. It came at the end of the school year as a way to introduce students to the high school.
One of the components of that introduction is allowing time for interested students to meet with coaches of the different Mustangs’ sports. As expected, coach Kevin Pumphrey said, cross country received very little interest compared to more traditional big-name sports, such as football or soccer, so he had to do some on-the-fly recruiting.
“We’ll break for introductory meetings for students interested in certain sports, and usually after maybe football and soccer get called, there’s not many guys left to be honest, because they don’t have much exposure to us,” Pumphrey said. “It leaves me to walk up and down the aisles and try to find some kids on the spot that I think would be good at it and enjoy it.”
Fortuna, a baseball player growing up, originally envisioned himself on the baseball diamond in high school. He agreed to join cross country after being recruited by Pumphrey, as a way to stay active over the summer and before the spring. He ended up loving it.
As with most sports – but more importantly with cross country and long distance running – heart and hustle are crucial. Within the first two weeks of joining the team, then-freshman Fortuna proved his coach’s initial thinking right, with effort that hinted at a bright future.
“There was another kid on the team that I thought showed a little promise then Dennis at the time, but we had a hill run within those first two weeks, and sometimes as a coach, you have moments where you can see who’s the tougher kid, and this was one of them,” Pumphrey said. “Dennis just grinded; everybody else quit at a certain point, but he kept going. It really made me go, ‘Uh oh, we’ve got something here,’ because I saw the toughness and competitiveness that Dennis has really early.”
Flash forward three years and Fortuna is coming off possibly the greatest individual boys cross country season in Triton history, while also bringing that energy to indoor track.
In the fall, Fortuna finished first overall in the Camden County Championship at Timber Creek Park before leading Triton to the program’s first sectional title and Group 3 state title. He also went on to break 16 minutes at Holmdel in this year’s Meet of Champions race, the fastest in Triton history.
Not skipping a beat, Fortuna now has the state’s top time in the two-mile race of the indoor season, after running a 9:24.66 at the New Balance Games in New York in January.
In preparation for his senior year, Fortuna said he wasn’t aiming for specific times from the start, but instead focused on racing against the competition at each meet. Looking back, he said it’s hard to imagine what his last four years would have been like had he not said yes to his coach’s request for a cross country tryout.
“I’m so grateful for it; I’m going to college for running now after this year and this sport has done a lot for me,” Fortuna said. “I would have never expected to become this good since my freshman year to be completely honest.
“It started as something to just stay active and meet new people at first,” he added, “but I fell in love with it and I wouldn’t change a thing.”