Vanessa Benfatti can be a very scary coach. Just ask the Mount Olive sprinters. Even the distance runners have experienced Benfatti’s extreme style, right in your face with the volume cranked up.
She isn’t apologetic about it. She also makes sure there’s enough fun to balance out all the hard work. Also, Benfatti knows her methods work very well.
Mount Olive earned its first Morris County team title this spring. Benfatti was alongside her athletes every step of the way, always offering encouragement along with the seemingly insurmountable goals.
“I do a lot of joking and fun, then there’s the other extreme when I’m in your face,” said Benfatti, the 2012 All Daily Record Girls Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year.
“There’s not a lot in between. … I always expect the best out of every person, no matter where their place is on the team. I think that’s where the real coaching comes in.”
During practice, Benfatti would make her athletes hit times much faster than they usually ran. In fact, she’d shout splits across the track to be sure they’d meet those marks. But when race-day came, the Marauders were always prepared – and running fast suddenly seemed so much easier.
Sophomore Keturah Orji was Mount Olive’s superstar, breaking the Morris County records in the long and triple jumps and helping the relays do the same. Orji also won both events at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions two weeks ago, and placed third at nationals.
But it was the whole Marauders team which came together at the Morris County Championships. Orji won the long and triple jumps and the 400 meters, and finished second in the 200. Senior Ashley Tomasula cleared 10-6 to win the pole vault, her first meet of the year. Mount Olive junior Marissa Karl was third in the 800 meters. Sophomore Suzanne Nimoh took sixth in the 200. Senior Gentrix Shanga was third in the long jump and sixth in the triple jump. Senior Alison Schroeder was fifth in the high jump.
Mount Olive wrapped up the meet by breaking a 30-year-old record in the 4×400, with sophomore Alicia Warren turning in a 57.5-second split despite knee pain.
“You have to meet her expectations, or you don’t want to look at her,” Shanga said. “Her raising the bar for us, having these great expectations for us, helps us work harder as a team. …With Coach Benfatti, you see she cares, and wants us to succeed. Being tough on us, and persistently pushing us forward, is helping us be better.”
Benfatti frequently draws on her own experiences of running at Morris Catholic. Then known by her maiden name, Vanessa Lewis graduated with the Morris County records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters – the last of which still stands today. Though “my title was sprinter,” she also ran the 800 and the 100-meter hurdles, high jumped and long jumped, and even tried the shot put. She went to the University of Michigan with an athletic scholarship to play soccer, though she also worked out with the track team.
“I always have a story for the girls, because I’ve done it all,” Benfatti said. “It’s not bragging, but I can associate with them. If I can toughen up, you can toughen up. I’m not just saying it because I think it. I’m saying it because I know it.”
During Michigan’s long winter breaks, Benfatti would help out with Morris Catholic’s indoor team. After graduation, she coached club soccer in Ohio, and was a volunteer assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. But Benfatti “missed trees, missed mountains, missed having access to things,” so she moved back to New Jersey. After a few months as a personal trainer, she took a maternity-leave position as a physical education teacher at Whippany Park. When that teacher returned, Benfatti moved to Mount Olive and began coaching soccer and track and field. She gave up the soccer job in 2008 when her first daughter, Gianna, was born, but she has been with the Marauders track program for eight seasons. Youngest daughter Mia, born Jan. 28, was Mount Olive’s unofficial “sleeping mascot,” sometimes even attending practices. Gianna and her 2-year-old brother D.J. were also occasional guests of the Marauders, a particular highlight for the athletes.
“She works us so hard so we can be the best,” senior Ingrid Nimoh said. “She pushes us more than any other coach would. … During, it’s frustrating. But afterward, it really benefited us.”