Members of the cross country team pose for a photo outside Ewing High School. Pictured are Ryan Webster, Jordan Forsythe, Chris Andriana, Selwa Benkhoukha​, Izzy Falzone, Michelle Frolio, Lucas Vasquez, John Vasquez (senior captain), Gibson Arnold and Mohammad Srouji.

John Vasquez not only got a great life experience as part of Global Leadership Adventures, he also found a challenging environment for a workout.

The Ewing High School senior did a training run during his three weeks in Peru. “We were playing soccer with the locals, and I thought I’d do a little jog around the park,” Vasquez says. “It was sluggish and slow because it was at high altitude. It was at about 2,000 feet above sea level.”

The run was just one thing that he cherished from his eye-opening visit. Over 21 days, he got a taste of the country and its culture while helping to make a difference with the Global Leadership Adventures program.

“It’s kind of like a Peace Corps for teens,” Vasquez says. “They have programs all around the world where you can help people. There is animal conservation and doing service work. I chose Peru.

“They’re like kids my age. We stayed in a hotel in Cusco. We did community service work, built a greenhouse, we taught Peruvian kids, we got to go to all the beautiful ancient sights. We kind of lived there. You end up being this big family while you’re down there.”

Vasquez grew during the trip that gave him independence and responsibility. He traveled for the first time by himself and made friends with other students from across the country.
Vasquez came back to take on another responsibility as the lone returning senior on the Ewing cross country team. He’s not their fastest runner—that honor through the first three weeks of the season belongs to his freshman brother, Lucas—but he’s an important part of encouraging the Blue Devils team.

John Vasquez, senior captain of the EHS cross country team, runs during a recent race.

“We’re really unified,” Vasquez says. “I do want to give out a little more advice for the younger ones since I’ve been doing this a long time. The ones a grade below, I ran with them three or four years so I know them pretty well. I know I’m the vet here so I have to be motivational, and adding motivation to the team would be good.”

Vasquez and the Blue Devils have been inspired by their start. Their team numbers are on the rise, and Ewing is seeing new opponents and courses this year.

“We’re doing a lot more diverse meets this season,” Vasquez says. “We’re going to Ocean County Park. We’ve done pretty well for ourselves. For me personally, I’m getting back where my PR was, 18:36. Getting to that point early on in the year is good. Everyone else is doing pretty well. And my younger brother has been shining in his own light.”

Lucas Vasquez was third in the freshman race at the Battle at Ocean County Park on Sept. 15. He debuted at his first high school invitational by taking 12th out of 421 freshmen at the Cherokee Challenge.

“It’s been a different experience,” Vasquez says. “It’s kind of cool seeing him here. He’s been pretty dedicated to what he’s been doing. Since he’s been running all year, he’s pretty well built up for this and wanting to improve more. I feel quite nice seeing him like that.”

Lucas is the only new freshman boy, but Ewing has found enough runners to replace a large graduation class of six runners plus one junior who did not return from last year.

Running for the Blue Devil boys are juniors Chris Andriana, Jordan Forsythe, Mohammad Srouji and Ryan Webster, sophomore Jeremi Quirus and Michael Conover is a senior track standout who qualified for nationals on the track and is out for the first time.

“We’re building a close-knit unit,” says Ewing co-coach Dan Montferrat. “We’re incorporating this big group idea now and it’s working.”

Montferrat is new to the Ewing cross country program while co-coach Megan Soltysik began volunteering for former head coach Ed Hunt midway through last fall. Soltysik works mainly with sprinters for the Ewing spring track and field team, while Montferrat works with the distance running crew during track season. They have liked the way their team has responded to their coaching.

“To see these guys make fast improvements is great to see,” Soltysik says. “They really work together and pull each other along. One day, we’ll have Mo leading, then John, or Lucas, or we’ll make sure Ryan stays in the lead. We want to see that translate into races. We have those top guys and then a gap, but they’re working with them at practices so trying to get them confidence. They alternate who’s going to lead certain workouts.”

On the girls’ side, Michelle Frolio is a sophomore and Amy Lear are juniors that return, while the team added seniors Selwa Benkhoukha and Lauren Christensen, junior Izzy Falzone and freshmen Jourdan Crumbley. Ewing has been trying to add to its numbers, and has gotten some athletes from other sports to cross-train with cross country.

“My goal is to get more of our winter and spring sprinters out,” says Soltysik, the freshman class advisor who is also approaching new high school students about running. “There are a lot of track kids from neighboring schools that have gone through cross country and come out firing.”

They can point to the improvements of their current team for incentive. Conover has come out and been strong in his cross country debut. He’s been trying to keep pace with Srouji, who was a top-100 finisher at the Cherokee Challenge. And while Conover, the only other male senior for the Blue Devils, has brought some speed to the team, Vasquez has experience with his drive that has yielded promising development.

“His freshman year of cross country, he was like a 22:00-minute guy,” Soltysik says. “Our first dual, he ran 19:05. He’s improved a great deal. He’s working hard and he’s enthusiastic about it. He’s keeping everyone having a good time which is important because we’re trying to build the program.”

Vasquez has been through the Colonial Valley Conference courses year after year, and he has been to the bigger invitationals that are ahead like the Shore Coaches Invitational. He has tried to keep the team focused on improvement.

“John Vasquez has been the stalwart the last couple years,” Montferrat says. “He’s been the guy you can count on. He picks up the points when you need them. He’s a good leader. He organizes them.”

Vasquez isn’t at the front of the pack in races, but he is critical for the Blue Devils. He has helped to push the front runners and bring along the runners who close out the top five scoring spots.

“That’s one of the most important places when it comes to a cross country team,” Montferrat says. “You’re 4-5-6 guys make the difference in a dual meet, or a big race when you’re going for a team title. That’s part of the structure we’re trying to build. And we keep trying to tell our guys that the 4-5-6 runners, you’re more than capable of doing the things the 1-2-3 guys are doing because we see the hard work and they’re doing the same runs. We’re trying to build that back half and that’ll help lift everyone else.”

Montferrat has been able to work with Vasquez and chart his progress in the track season. He’s been valuable to that team as well.

“He’s a real good two-miler,” Montferrat says. “I think his PR was somewhere in the 10:50s. I think cross country is a good challenge for him. I think it benefits him. He’s a big kid so he has that long stride that works to his advantage late in races. You ask him to run a half-mile, he’ll run a half-mile. Ask him to run a mile he’ll run a mile. There’s nothing he won’t put a 100 percent in and succeed in.”

For this fall, Vasquez is putting his energy into cross country. It’s been a staple in his life for longer than his high school career.

“I started in eighth grade when they reinstituted it back into Fisher Middle School,” Vasquez says. “I was always told, ‘long distance would be good for you.’ I liked the idea of running through the wilderness and all these diverse locales.”

It’s not Peru, but Vasquez is enjoying some new courses on the Ewing schedule and looking for a fast start to his final year of running for the Blue Devils. It won’t be the end of his running.

“I feel like I should keep running in my life,” Vasquez says. “It’s good for your body and keeping your mind straight. I think running cross country in college would be a good thing. I want to keep running in my life. It’s good for me.”