Sincere Rhea watched Olympic hurdlers in amazement as a child.
Now, he’s the one hurdling and turning heads.
The St. Augustine Prep junior won the 55-meter hurdles at the Meet of Champions in Toms River on Feb. 25. Rhea is The Press Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
“I’ve been thinking about this since freshman year,” Rhea said. “Honestly, I still can’t believe it. I’m so happy (my hard work) is all paying off.”
Rhea grew up and lives in the Dorchester section of Maurice River Township. He arrived at St. Augustine three years ago strictly a football player. Hermits track and field coach Matt Forrest is also a football assistant. He tries to convince all freshmen football players to come out for track and field.
Rhea thought he would give track a shot.
“It turned out for the best,” he said. “Mr. Forrest was one of my favorite teachers and coaches.”
Before coming out for track, Rhea’s only experience with the sport was through television.
“Hurdling caught my eye,” he said. “I would always watch the Olympics to see them hurdle. I would be like ‘Wow.’ ”
Rhea found some hurdling mentors in older teammates Will Gould and Alex Rosenbleeth. Gould is a senior sprinter, while Rosenbleeth graduated last year and is currently a freshman at the University of Tampa.
“They’re two of my best friends,” Rhea said. “They took me under their wings like a little brother. It was a challenge, but I love competition.”
Rhea soon became engrossed in hurdling. He has become a student of the event, studying video to improve his technique.
“Every single step counts,” he said.
Rhea is just the second MOC winner in St. Augustine history. Mark Sivieri won the 1,600 run at the 1990 outdoor track and field MOC.
Rhea won at the MOC in a personal-best 7.35 seconds. That time ranked ninth in the country this winter, according to milesplit.com, a website that follows high school track and field. It was the fourth fastest time by a junior in the country this winter, according to milesplit.com.
“He never gives up in a race,” Forrest said. “He can’t stand seeing someone run faster than him. His technique is awesome. He puts a lot of training in.”
The 5-foot-11, 165-pound Rhea is also a standout football player. The wide receiver and defensive back made 26 tackles and had two interceptions last fall. Rhea also returned a kickoff for a touchdown.
“I still don’t know which one I want to purse in college,” he said. “I would love to do both in college.”
But for now he’s focused on this spring where his main event will be the 110 hurdles.
“This,” he said of his indoor success, “is just the first step.”
Coach of the Year
The Egg Harbor Township girls are a perennial Atlantic County and Cape-Atlantic League power.
But this winter the Eagles experienced success on another level.
They won the South Jersey Group IV championship for the first time in the program’s history.
Eagles coach Erika Vazquez is The Press Indoor Track and Field Coach of the Year. Vazquez graduated from EHT in 1998 and took over the girls program in 2010. The EHT girls had won five straight Atlantic County outdoor championships from 2011-15 but had never won an indoor or outdoor South Jersey title until this winter.
Sprinters Lauren Princz and Ajae Alvarez-Taylor sparked EHT to the breakthrough victory. Princz, a freshman, won the 55 dash.
“It was very exciting,” Vazquez said. “We really came together as a team. We talked as a team about wanting to compete at the higher level. This group of girls is very motivated.”