NEW ROCHELLE – It was 10 degrees on a recent afternoon with a you-don’t-want-to-know windchill.
Iona Prep’s basketball team was in the gym. Its track team worked out in the school’s large lobby.
Except for the pole vaulters. They were outside running several long sprints, as well as 15 times up and down a big hill.
For four hours the night before, the same kids had pole vaulted in the gym, thanks to a special vaulting box that can be accessed in the floor.
Iona Prep has the best pole vaulters in the area. In fact, its entire track team is one of the area’s best.
Its size surely doesn’t hurt. At a school of 750 boys, 120 are on the indoor track squad.
Despite other teams’ stage-whispered assertions, the kids and head coach Jan Mitchell say no scholarships are given.
The team, in fact, might be a lot smaller if its members were more athletically gifted.
Mitchell, a social studies teacher who has coached track for 39 years, the last 36 as head coach, has a knack for netting kids cut from other teams.
There are many but some of the more notable include sprinter Taj Marable and shot putter Andrew Cannistraci, both axed from basketball; and pole vaulter Daniel Bomba, a soccer washout.
“We’re building everyone from the ground up,” pole vaulter Matt Sullivan assessed.
The “we” includes seven coaches, another large, distinguishing number.
Mitchell, the overall coordinator who works with a handful of Prep runners and who started and runs the Ursuline girls program, said, “Do I need 120 (athletes)? No. Do I want 120? Yeah.”
The program’s on the “upswing,” he said, adding, “Down, for me, would be 80 (kids).”
“There’s a place for everybody on the team. You don’t have to be a star,” Mitchell added.
But, indeed, many have become just that.
The school’s track exclamation points are numerous. Included is Vince Draddy’s high school mile win at the 1979 Millrose Games.
“That kind of set the program in motion,” said Mitchell, who was then in his first year as head coach.
Team members talk about the hard work that’s required. But Mitchell, emphasizing the school’s academics-first approach, noted he excuse kids from practice if they need to study. Similarly, while the team had six meets over Christmas break, kids with family obligations were excused..
“If a kid wants to go on vacation to his grandmother’s in Florida I’m certainly not going to say no. Those are life things you never get back,” Mitchell said.
As it is, while all 120 kids will compete this winter, Mitchell brings small squads to some meets.
Iona Prep, for instance, topped more than 70 other squads to win the Marine Corps Holiday Classic boys team title, although just six Gaels competed — each placing.
Fellow seniors Matt Fay, who lives in New Rochelle, and Ryan Herrera-Murphy, of the Bronx, went 1-2 in the pole vault.
Herrera-Murphy, who’d always beaten Fay, might have been his biggest fan that day. Fay soared 15 feet, 9 inches, his personal best by a whopping 21 inches.
“I was so proud of him. He just blasted over the bar,” Herrera-Murphy said.
Herrera-Murphy, who won both the recent Catholic High School Athletic Association sectional and city championships with a 15-6 vault but went 14-6 at the Marine Corps, didn’t even know what pole vaulting was when entering the school as a freshman.
He’d survived the initial basketball cut when then-star vaulter Greg Gallagher (the state indoor and outdoor champ, who took up pole vault after being cut from basketball) delivered a convincing sales pitch during a classroom-to-classroom plea.
“There were only three (pole vaulters). They needed freshmen,” explained Herrera-Murphy, who quit basketball tryouts and vaulted indoors that winter.
Fay, who also won the 30-plus-school Catholic State Intersectional Championships (CSIC) this month, will pole vault for Bucknell next year and Herrera-Murphy (second there) for the U.S. Naval Academy.
Herrera-Murphy characterizes the sport as life-changing, making him more disciplined and in control of his emotions. Without it, there’d be no Annapolis.
“If I didn’t pole vault I don’t know where I’d be going now, honestly,” he said. … “It’s just my driving passion. It’s been everything.”
Marable, a senior from White Plains whose a speedy running back and return man on the school football team, mentioned his track buddies as future “lifelong friends.”
For Xavier Tyler, a senior from Mount Vernon who finished first in the CSIC and second in the Marine Corps weight throw, track’s a “big community,” with teammates and even opponents sharing the “same struggles.”
“This team means a lot to me,” added Bomba, who lives in Putnam Valley. “Typically on a team you have one to two good friends and one kid you have a problem with. This is more like a family than a team. That’s one thing that separates us from the other sports.”
“Everyone wants to do more. Everyone is hooked on winning. Everyone is pushing each other,” Marable said.
Of course, much of this goes virtually unnoticed.
“They don’t get the glory — the people in the stands,” Mitchell said, adding, though, his kids get a sense of accomplishment.
For Cannistraci, a junior from New Rochelle who was second in the CSIC, CHSAA sectional and city and fourth in the Marine Corps shot put, that’s enough.
“I don’t really need the newspaper headline,” he said. “My reward is my team and coach being proud and my parents congratulating me.”