Ben Fanta comes to school 30 minutes early every day to the hold the door for his fellow High School South students.
“It’s just something I do to spread kindness,” said the junior. “It’s something I believe in. It’s another thing that keeps me going.”
The other thing comes after school when Fanta joins his fellow distance runners for practice and meets. He has been holding doors and running since his freshman year. “Both things I really enjoy,” Fanta said. “Both things have done a lot for me.”
Fanta has become known for his kind act before school as well as his increasing contributions to the cross country team. His door holding is an appreciated start to many students’ days, and he feels good about what his daily habit brings.
“I can make a lot of people feel better in a short amount of time,” Fanta said. “Everyone just seems very cheerful around me. They tend to feel better about themselves. They really appreciate what I’m doing.”
In the same way, his Pirates cross country teammates can appreciate how the efforts that Fanta has put in have translated into his emergence. He has climbed every year in the program.
“That kid, no one worked harder than him,” said Pirates cross country coach Kurt Wayton. “No one works more consistently than Ben. In the three years I’ve coached him, he’s never had a bad minute. He’s positive and upbeat. He’ll do whatever you ask of him. He has high standards for himself and his teammates. It’s been an absolute joy to coach this young man.”
Over the summer, Fanta consistently ran in front of the rest of the team on the Pirates’ long runs. Wayton knew that would likely translate into a big jump for Fanta, who hadn’t made the varsity top seven as a sophomore. He had done well with a 17:41 best as a sophomore after an 18th-place finish at the Mercer County Championships—in the JV race.
“I had improved a lot when I was a sophomore,” Fanta said. “I was very ambitious. I was very determined. I always wanted to do better. In running, I could do that without stressing myself out. I kept putting in effort. At times, I’d be an overachiever and I’d do more than was asked.”
This year, Fanta was the Pirates’ second finisher behind Adhwin Sridhar—eighth overall—to help South win the Mercer County Championships with 53 points, 40—better than runner-up High School North. It was a new experience for every member of South, which won its first county crown since 2014.
“Our goal is obviously to beat all the other teams in the county,” Fanta said. “We didn’t know if we could get there, we just gave it our best no matter what. Once we figured out the coach was leaving, we rallied behind that and wanted to make this the best season possible.”
Fanta and his teammates continued to make Wayton’s 19th and final season with South a memorable one as they went into states. Sridhar, Fanta, Austin True, Patrick Rancan, Jake Williams, Connor Lundy and George Gochuico won the Central Jersey Group 4 title that had eluded them in the previous two years. It was their first sectional crown since 2013. When they placed fourth in the state Group 4 meet, it earned them a spot in the Meet of Champions, where they closed with an impressive fourth-place finish in the state led by Fanta’s 40th place individual finish. It was their highest finish since 2013 when they won bronze, but all of their achievements came despite losing their projected top two runners at the start of the season.
Fanta was pleased with how far he came during the season. He exceeded his expectations and helped the team to historic achievements.
“I set goals for myself at the beginning of the season,” Fanta said. “I set those goals higher when I realized the potential for what I could do. At first, I wanted to break 17:30. I ended up getting much better times. I ran 16:39 at Holmdel at the Meet of Champions. My main goal was to make the varsity team. I ended doing that.”
Fanta has come a long way in a short time. He had tried soccer and basketball growing up before finding his niche with running.
“I enjoyed playing them, but I wasn’t as good at them,” Fanta said. “I wasn’t as good at them as straight up running. I never really realized how much I loved running until freshman year of high school.”
Fanta had an inkling of his true passion when he did crew in middle school. The crew team ran a lot, and he always felt best when he was running.
“I had a lot of great experiences during that time and I was always very motivated,” Fanta said. “Running was just something I loved. I always wanted to keep going.”
Fanta has kept going all the way onto the South varsity. He is the sort of athlete that Wayton will miss as he gets out of coaching and will spend time with his family.
“I’m going to miss everything about it,” Wayton said. “Outside of my family, it was easily the best part of my day. It fulfilled me professionally. Kids are placed in my class sometimes against their will. Kids in cross country want you to mold them into a young man or woman.”
Wayton watched runners like Fanta push their limits and develop into solid members of the program.
“That epitomizes what success is in cross country,” Wayton said. “You earn belief in yourself, you earn your fitness and what that leads to is success.”
Even with winter track beginning without Wayton, the Pirate athletes are striving to meet his standards, and the culture that he built for the WW-P South cross country program won’t be forgotten.
“I think the challenge for many of us is to be able to keep the mentality we had under Coach Wayton,” Fanta said. “Keep being well disciplined and being able to keep going, having motivation and getting the most out of each other, and generally improve the camaraderie of the whole team.”
Fanta will be back next year as a senior, and intends to take a leadership role. He’s already a leader by example with his hard work on every run, not to mention the kindness that he shows in school every morning by holding the door to start the day.
“I love it,” Fanta said. “It also made me feel better as a person. You can say it really opened the door for me.”