Published in the August 4, 2016 edition
By BUD KEOHAN
NORTH ANDOVER — North Reading’s Johnny Braga continued to shine in the track and field world for Merrimack College during his junior year as the accounting major became the first Merrimack trackman named an All American.
The Warrior was awarded that appellation for his exploits during both the indoor and outdoor seasons after competing in the NCAA Division II Nationals in the heptathlon indoors in Pittsburg, Kansas, and the decathlon outdoors in Bradenton, Fla.
Braga is a very happy young man at Merrimack with his classes, teammates and especially with his coach, Jackie Mendes.
“The coaches at Merrimack are one of a kind and I wouldn’t want it any other way. They are like family to me. However, I have to give a ton of credit to head/decathlon coach Jacky Mendes for what she has done for me and this team,” he said, adding her arrival at Merrimack “was one of the best things to happen to me as an athlete because I know I wouldn’t have made it as far without her.”
“I don’t think I could’ve asked for anything more this past year. I got a personal best in all 10 of my events, got to travel across the country to bigger meets, and met some great new teammates,” Braga said.
“On top of that this program had by far the best year it’s ever seen. Both men’s and women’s teams finished better than ever before in both conference championships, and now the team has five All Americans, including a national champion, Carly Muscaro. It’s been fun watching this team grow as much as it has and I already can’t wait until the fall to start training again,” Braga added.
Competes December to May
His competitive seasons start in December and run into May, which can be a grueling schedule to keep in addition to school work. “I’m very lucky to have a family and group of North Reading friends who support me so much with track. I get messages from them all the time telling me ‘good luck’ or even asking how I did; it means a lot,” Braga said.
The team opened its indoor season at the UMass Boston Open at the Reggie Lewis Center where Braga was third in the high jump with a personal and school record of 6.56 feet (two meters) and was sixth in the pole vault at 13.45 feet (4.1 meters), a new school record. A week later he set a third school record in the long jump at 23.5 feet (7.17 meters).
After the Christmas season Braga got a head start on the heptathlon at the Harvard Multi-Meet by topping a field of 17 (including six from Northeastern, three each from Westfield State and UMass Lowell, two from BU, and one each from MIT and Colby).
On the first day he won his 60-meter heat in 7.28 seconds but it was only good for third place. He also won the long jump at 22.57 feet (6.85 meters), finished 10th in shot put with a toss of 35.11 feet (10.96 meters), and was second in the high jump at 6.06 feet (1.88 meters).
Crowned ‘Athlete of the Week’
The next day he took third in the 60-meter hurdles in 8.88 seconds and tied for second, at 12 feet, (3.66 meters) in the pole vault. He then was told by Coach Mendes how to pace his final event – the 1000-meter run – which he did in 2:50.99 for fourth place to clinch the trip to Kansas as he won the title by 63 points with a score of 4,952 to 4,889 over his nearest competitor, Northeastern senior Nick Fofana.
Braga was named the Men’s Field Athlete of the Week by the Northeast 10 for his heptathlon win.
The following week at BU in the John Thomas Terrier Invitational to close out January, Braga was seventh out of 72 competitors in the long jump with a mark of 23.1 feet (7.04 meters).
To open February at BU’s Scarlet and White Invitational, Braga reached third in the high jump at 6 feet, 8 inches (2.04 meters) and eighth in the pole vault at 13.29 feet (4.05 meters).
In the NE-10 Championships at the Reggie Lewis Center, he earned points in three competitions. He took fifth with a school-record 13 feet, 5 3/16 inches (4.11 meters) in the pole vault plus a pair of thirds in the long jump at 23 feet, 5½ inches (7.15 meters) and the high jump at 6 feet, 6.35 inches (1.99 meters).
By skipping the heptathlon he was able to go after it as February came to a close.
Second at heptathlon
Coach Mendes said Braga “had the weekend of his life” when he finished in second place in the heptathlon with 5,307 points, fourth in Division II this year. He was the lone threat to URI senior Mike DiMambro, who carded 5,531 points to win it. NU’s Fofana was third with 4,906 points.
Braga’s record in the New Englands included winning three of the seven sections of the event – the long jump at 23 feet, 7 15/l6 inches (7.20 meters), the high jump at 6 feet, 7 ½ inches (2.02 meters), and the 1000-meter run at 2:39.97.
He was second in the 60-meter dash in 7.19 seconds, third in the pole vault at 13 feet, 3½ inches (4.05 meters), fifth in the 60-meter hurdles in 8.90 seconds, and ninth in the shot put with a throw of 35 feet, 5.25 inches (10.80 meters).
Two weeks later at Pittsburg State in Kansas with a 16-man field in the heptathlon, the first day began with the first four segments of the event. Braga set a personal record of 7.18 seconds in the 60-meter dash for sixth and took fourth in the long jump at 23 feet, two inches.
He faltered in the shot put, taking 14th at 34 feet, 6 inches (10.52 meters), but recovered with a fifth-place finish in the high jump, clearing just over 6 feet, 5 inches (two meters). That left him eighth overall in the field as the first day of competition came to a close.
On Saturday the remaining three events were contested early. Braga set a new school record in the 60-meter hurdles in 8.68 seconds but that placed him only 12th in the group. He matched his Merrimack record in the pole vault by clearing 13 feet, 9.35 inches (4.20 meters) but that resulted in a 10th-place finish.
In the clutch Braga earned his All-American status by reeling off a sparkling time of 2:41.34 in the 1000-meter race to take second and finished sixth overall (the top half of eight gain All-American recognition). He had the best record of anyone east of the Mississippi as the meet’s top five finishers were from Azusa Pacific, host Pittsburg State, Alaska Anchorage, Missouri Southern and Texas A&M-Commerce.
“I think the best memory of this year is when (Coach Mendes) came up to me before my last event in the New England heptathlon, the 1000-meter run. It was my last chance to make nationals and I had to run fast,” he recalled.
“She came up with a time she wanted me to hit every 200 meters and if my time was off she made me promise I would pick up the pace no matter what. I ended up getting a personal best by over seven seconds and achieved a score that guaranteed me a trip to Kansas. She knows the type of athlete and person I am and she knows how to help me reach my full potential. But this year was just the beginning.”
The outdoor season
The second track season in the spring found Braga helping the 4×100 meter relay team win at both Tufts and AIC. He also won the long jump at AIC and Moravian in Pennsylvania. In late April at MIT he won the high jump and took second in the 400-meter hurdles. As May opened Braga ran on the 4×400 meter Warrior relay team at the famous Penn Relays. These meets helped ready him for his big decathlon events.
The first was the Northeast-10 conference meet where Braga barely edged Ethan Chapman of host Southern Connecticut by four points 6,458 to 6,454. As a sophomore Braga had scored a record 6,531 to win that event.
At New Haven Braga won the 100-meters in 11.62 seconds and the high jump with a leap of 6 feet, 3 1/2 inches. He took second place in three events – in the pole vault at 13 feet, 7.25 inches, the long jump at 21 feet, and the 400 meters in 50.92 seconds.
Braga also placed third in three other events – the 1,500 meters in 4:35.27, the javelin at 149 feet, 7 inches and the shot put at 34 feet, 11 inches. He wrapped up the day with two fourth-place finishes in the discus at 100 feet, 2 inches and the 110- meter hurdles in 16.67.
Wins New Englands
For the New Englands the NE-10 duo was ranked behind Nick Fofana of Northeastern, who had scored 6651 in another meet. All three improved on their scores in the New Englands, Braga winning with 6955 to 6733 for Fofana and 6610 for Chapman.
In the 2016 clash of 10 entrants in the New Englands Braga won half the events, the 100 meter dash in 11.62 seconds, the 1500 meter run in 4:29.50, the high jump in six feet, 6.25 inches (1.99 meters), the long jump in 23 feet, 4.75 inches (7.13 meters), and the javelin throw in 165 feet, seven inches (50.46 meters).
He finished second in the 400 meter dash in 50.70 seconds, tied for third in the pole vault at 13 feet, 5.25 inches (4.10 meters), fifth in the 110 meter hurdles in 15.99 seconds, and sixths in the shot put at 35 feet, four inches (10.77 meters) and the discus throw at 99 feet, 11 inches (30.46 meters).
His prowess in the New Englands sent Braga on to the NCAA Division II Nationals at Bradenton, Fla., at IMG Academy in late May after the spring semester and graduation were over. Braga’s score in the New Englands, the 11th best in the country in Division II, was enough to get him to Bradenton but if he again wanted the All American designation he won indoors in Kansas he needed an eighth place finish.
Earns 2nd All American title
Braga got that eighth place finish by scoring a personal best 7013. He finished 132 points ahead of the ninth place finisher and was closer to those ahead of him, being just 17 points from seventh, 103 from sixth and 115 from fifth.
The title went to Alaska Anchorage with Azusa Pacific taking both second and third, followed by Central Missouri, Pittsburg State of Kansas, UC-San Diego and Missouri Southern so once again Braga had the best record east of the Mississippi. In fact only three of the 16 in the event were from the east half of the nation, the 13th finisher being from Lewis University of Illinois, a Catholic college, and the 15th from Queens of Charlotte, N.C.
On the opening Thursday morning Braga started out with half of the ten events, tying his best in the high jump in which he ranked second, and ending the day with a personal best of 50.15 seconds in the 400 meter run to finish fifth in that.
But on the second morning Braga started out with personal bests, turning in a 15.63 second dash in the 110 hurdles, hurling the discus just short of 108 feet, breaking the Merrimack record in the pole vault by going over 13-9 (4.20 meters), tossing the javelin 162-5 (49.52 meters), and then running a solid third in the closing 1500 yard run in 4:32.33, just four seconds behind the winner.
Braga was on the All-Region team for the outdoor season for not only the decathlon but also for the pole vault and long jump for setting Merrimack records during April and May.
The former NRHS Hornet said he decided he wanted to make All-American, which means finishing in the top eight in the national tournament.
“Last year my season ended when I lost a decathlon by three points in the New England championships. I was happy with how that year went but I entered this year hungrier and more motivated. That is also when I made my goal for this year, to become an All American,” Braga said.
He achieved that goal, both indoors and outdoors, and credits his family, his North Reading friends, his Merrimack teammates and his coaches, especially Head Coach Jackie Mendes because he feels her advice before the seventh and last event in the New Englands heptathlon, the 1000 meter run, helped him to qualify for the trip to Kansas in March.
Coach Mendes has a very high opinion of Braga, who not only has piled up personal bests but broken many school records since December. She notes that, “what really makes him a story of success is the personality that coincides with the athlete. He has an insatiable drive to beat the odds, to prove his worth, to be the best.”
Mendes adds that, “although he still has not tapped his full potential, he is realizing what it takes to be at the absolute top now more than ever. He is incredibly humble, poised and ready for those clutch all or nothing moments. I have no doubt the 2017 season will be what signifies him as not only the hometown hero, but the pillar of what being a Merrimack Warrior is all about.”
Braga is looking ahead with great anticipation for his final collegiate track season, aiming to work hard to set and achieve new goals while enjoying the camaraderie with his teammates that is such an important part of an athlete’s experience.
“I’m still loving my time here at Merrimack. I have great friends and classes continue to go well. I plan on graduating with an accounting degree in the spring,” he said in a recent interview.
“My teammates are the best in the world. We had so much improvement this year as a team because of how hard all of them worked. They want to be great and when that sort of attitude spreads like it has, cool things happen,” Braga believes.