FINDING HER NICHE

FINDING HER NICHE

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FINDING HER NICHE

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The remarkable track and field career of Keturah Orji began innocently when she was a youngster.

“I was in fourth or fifth grade,” the Mount Olive junior recalls. “I used to play tag with the boys in school during recess and I was the fastest one out of all of them. They couldn’t catch me.”

At that time, Orji was deeply involved with her first love – gymnastics.

“I was a gymnast first,” Orji said. “I always thought that was what I would do.”

But Orji’s natural talent of being able to run fast stood out.

“I really didn’t know how fast I was, but whenever I used to race someone, I would win,” Orji said.

Someone encouraged Orji to join the track team when she entered Mount Olive.

“When I went to the first practices, I didn’t know how I would do,” Orji said. “But I just ran and beat some of the fastest girls on the team. Then I realized I could do this. I never expected that I would be a runner.”

Orji didn’t just become a runner. She became a dominant performer, one of the most diversified athletes in New Jersey.

Over the last year or so, Orji has excelled in both indoor and outdoor track. Indoors, she’s somewhat limited, because most meets, especially those during the Morris County series at Drew University, do not offer the long jump or the triple jump, Orji’s specialties.

But she’s done pretty well just running.

In fact, Orji posted the fastest times of all competitors in three running events this winter, namely the 55-meter dash, the 300-meter run and the 400-meter run.

She posted her best time of 7.29 in the 55 at the Morris County championship, which she won. She also posted a time of 41.50 in the 300-meter run, also at the Morris County championship meet, also a winning performance. And she had the best time in the 400-meter run, the sole Morris County runner to run under a minute, a time of 59.15, when she won the Racine-Drew Invitational.

Incredibly, Orji didn’t even realize that she achieved such a Triple Crown.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Orji said. “I never expected any of it.”

Mount Olive girls’ indoor track coach Joe Hehn said he realizes that Orji is something special.

“I’ve never seen anything like her,” Hehn said. “She can pretty much do anything we ask of her. I’m reluctant to ask her to do more, because she would do it. She’s far and away the best female athlete I’ve seen. No one can compare to her, because of all the things she can do.”

Although she won the county championship in both the 55-meter dash and the 300-meter run, Orji’s best running event was the 55-meter dash.

There were times this season where it appeared as if Orji was shot out of a cannon. That’s how explosive she was with her starts. As soon as the starter’s pistol went off, it looked as if the race was over. Orji was at least three, maybe four strides ahead of the field.

Locally, Orji collected more hardware than a professional carpenter. She won the O’Leary Lid Lifter to start the season, then won the Pietrewicz Polar Bear and the Valentine Invitational, before she won the county gold medal. She captured the NJSIAA North 1, Group III gold medal in a blistering 7.19 seconds, was third in the overall Group III meet and finished second at the NJSIAA Meet of Champions.

And for her efforts, Orji has been selected as the All Daily Record Girls’ Indoor Track Athlete of the Year.

Orji said that she worked hard on her starts, which helped her succeed this season.

“I worked on my reaction time and my starts,” Orji said. “I jumped up the stairs of the school and that helped. I never expected to get my 55 time that low. To finish second in the Meet of Champs was incredible. I kept hitting 7.3 and it wasn’t my PR (personal record), so I didn’t think I could do well. What I did at the end of the season was crazy.”

Not in Hehn’s eyes.

“I think her gymnastic training gives her total control of her body,” Hehn said. “It gave her the discipline to practice something hard and stay with it. When you see her work, she doesn’t look like she’s working hard. She has that intensity that makes her a champion. She doesn’t like to lose. She always trains hard.”

Hehn likes the way Orji thinks of her teammates first.

“She’s committed to her teammates,” Hehn said. “She likes running relays. She doesn’t want to be treated like anyone else.”

Orji is excited to begin the outdoor season, where she can really show her multi-talented skills.

“I think I’m best in the triple jump,” Orji said. “I work hard with my jumping coach (Sirajj Ziyad). I like jumping a lot. It makes me sad that I can’t jump as much in the indoor season.”

Orji did jump enough over the winter to set new county records in the long jump and the triple jump, competing in events at the New York Armory. Her county record long jump of 19-9 was set at the Varsity Classic and her county best of 44-31/2 was set last week at the United States Track and Field Junior Nationals.

“She’ll do better in the spring, because her jumps will get better,” Hehn said. “Then her running will get better. She had a phenomenal year. I don’t know if she could have done better in all she’s done.”

Hehn likes the way Orji has developed.

“When she first came to us, she was very shy,” Hehn said. “Then, she started to make friends and her personality came out. Now, we all realize how much fun she is to be around. She’s wonderful.”

Orji can’t comprehend what she was able to accomplish during the winter months.

“I’m very surprised, very impressed and really happy,” Orji said. “I guess I started with some natural talent and worked on it to get where I am today. But this is all really amazing. I never expected this.”

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