By DAVE O’SULLIVAN
Blake Pappas tried a bunch of sports when he was younger. He played soccer, even some football and ice hockey. When he started high school at Egg Harbor Township, however, he figured he would just stick to what he was best at. It made sense.
That decision has paid off big time, as Pappas has blossomed into one of the better cross country and track runners in the Cape-Atlantic League despite not having the typical build of a distance runner. A lot of distance guys are maybe 140 pounds or so, but Pappas looks like he could step in and play wide receiver or tight end on the Eagles’ football team. Coach Joe Lucchio affectionately refers to Pappas as a Clydesdale — and perhaps his bigger-than-average frame is an advantage because it leads to long strides, and he also has the strength that leads to endurance.
Pappas, this edition’s Old Cape Recycling Scholar Athlete, didn’t know much about how cross country operated when he started at EHT his freshman year. He just figured that he was pretty good at running, and that his consistent work ethic might earn him a spot on the team.
“I’ve been running since I was about 8 years old. My brother ran in high school, my mom is a runner. It’s just a healthy lifestyle. It’s something that my family bonds with. I played soccer for a lot of years and got into hockey when I was in middle school, but I stuck to what I thought I was good at, which is running,” Pappas said. “I didn’t know how any of the scoring worked in cross country (as a freshman). I just thought if I put in the work during the summer, hopefully the coach would see that and consider me to participate in varsity. I think that since freshman year I’ve gotten increasingly better. I’ve learned when to work hard and when to recover. I have a strength and conditioning class and I’ll work out different parts of my body that I don’t use when I run, and that helps me stay healthy. When you run, you only use certain parts of your body, so you have to make sure your hips are still strong, you have to keep your core intact, everything like that.”
“I’ve known Blake since he was in seventh grade and he would run with us in the summer sometimes, so I feel like I’ve been coaching him for about 10 years. He’s a great kid, works hard, and has matured — physically as well as a person. He’s really become one of the leaders of the team. He’s a great member of the team, always puts his best foot forward and never has a negative word to say. He’s really been great for this program,” coach Joe Lucchio said. “Since his freshman year, he’s probably PR’d by about two minutes, which is really a lot considering he’s been a runner. Some kids come in and have never run before, so hitting a PR is easier. He’s become one of the better runners in the CAL and has the possibility to run at the next level. He has all the tools plus a great attitude.”
Pappas is a year-round runner, which means he competes in cross country, indoor track and outdoor track, which can take a toll on his body and also tests his endurance when he’s not running. It’s not always easy to get motivated to sit down and do a few hours worth of homework after running three or four miles every afternoon.
“As a runner, you have to have good discipline. So, when I see all this school work, I embrace it because I’m used to this,” he said. “There are times when you just don’t want to do it, but you think that if you can just get through it, all the hard work will pay off. The work you do, the studying you do when nobody is watching is important.”
“That’s what impresses me so much about some of these kids who come along. They’ll have three or four hours of homework a night. We don’t leave practice until 4:30 or 5 p.m., so between eating dinner and taking a shower, they’re probably up until midnight,” Lucchio said. “These kids are so dedicated to their school work, and their school in general, their community. They put so much time in. It’s a 10- to 12-hour day when you factor in school, practice and homework. It’s really impressive.”
Having athletes such as Pappas benefits Lucchio because the work ethic of Pappas and the other seniors sets the standard.
“It leaves a way for no excuses,” Lucchio said. “If a kid says he couldn’t make practice, I can say, ‘well everyone else did, and they’re doing well in the classroom.’ It makes an environment where excuses don’t really exist.”
Some may not consider cross country and track traditional team sports, but Pappas pointed to team accomplishments as ones he’ll remember most once his high school career is over.
“Last year, during track season, we did unbelievably well with winning the county, CAL and sectional championships, and being a part of that team was great,” he said. “The whole team aspect (of track and cross country), I like that. When you’re running some days and you don’t feel good, you want to push a little harder for them. I know I can help out the team the most by doing the best I can individually.”
Still, he does have one individual accomplishment he’s proud of — setting a personal record that was sub-17 minutes in cross country last fall.
“I thought I could get there by my senior year, so I was surprised to be able to do that in a big meet during my junior year. You just have to never get too satisfied and always strive to be better,” Pappas said.
Lucchio said he’s looking for big things from Pappas throughout the remainder of the cross country season and into winter and spring track.
“We have the championship season coming up for cross country, and I expect him to do well in that. And in the winter and spring he’s more of a half-miler, and we have a tall order trying to replace some of the guys from the 4×800-meter team and hopefully he’ll be one of those guys,” he said.
“I’m just trying to savor this,” Pappas said. “I’ve made it through three years of high school and have worked hard, so I can’t take my foot off the gas pedal. I just want to keep in mind the relationships and friendships I’ve made here, so that when I’m 30 or 40 years old I can look back and say I had a great time.”
Contact Dave O’Sullivan: email@example.com; on Twitter @GDsullysays