To prepare for his freshman soccer season at Plum last year, Jake Susalla did some training with the Mustangs cross country team during the summer.
After a few runs, Susalla's father asked him if he wanted to change sports.
"I never thought I'd get into running," Susalla said. "But I wasn't the best soccer player and it wasn't that much fun for me anymore.
"I really got into the conditioning and my dad asked me if I just wanted to stick with it and I decided to do it."
It turned out to be a great move for both Susalla and the Plum High School cross country team.
As a freshman, Susalla finished 16th at the WPIAL Class AAA championship meet, the best finish of any freshman, and he qualified for the PIAA meet in Hershey. The success was a great surprise to the inexperienced runner.
"I never thought I'd even be on the varsity team last year," Susalla said. "We'd go into our intrasquad scrimmages and I'd always be nervous. So I definitely didn't think I'd have the season I had. But I really have to thank the seniors who helped me because I would never have been able to do what I did without their help."
Plum coach Joe Ionta said Susalla improved his time more than three minutes over the course of last season. Ionta was surprised by Susalla's early success, but knew he had the natural ability to succeed in the sport.
"He has a very good natural build for a runner," Ionta said. "He has great endurance and decent speed.
"He also runs very hard. I've always said running is 20 percent talent and 100 percent heart. He has great heart. He is a great competitor who hates to lose."
The competitor in Susalla became frustrated this past spring when he couldn't compete during track season. He strained his left quadriceps in mid-March and the injury didn't heal quickly enough for him to run again until late June.
But he returned in time for the start of summer workouts for cross country and started this season strong with a third-place finish at the Gateway Invitational, with only Fox Chapel twins Ethan and Colin Martin, two of the most highly touted runners in the WPIAL, running faster.
But shortly afterward, Susalla was sidelined again with a quad strain, this time in his right leg. Not wanting to have to sit out all season, he treated the injury differently this time.
His father knew of a renowned athletic trainer in Pittsburgh, Ron DeAngelo, who is the director of sports performance training at UPMC Center for Sports Medicine. Susalla begin seeing DeAngelo twice a week to treat his injury.
"He's helped make my injury a lot better," Susalla said. "I'm really grateful my dad had me go to him."
Susalla also took two weeks off from running, returning the week before the Uniontown Invitational on Sept. 28. Ionta and Susalla agreed it was important for him to run in the race, as well as the following two meets on Plum's schedule, the Class AAA Section 4 meet and the Grove City Invitational.
Not only did Susalla run, but he excelled on the courses. He finished second at the Uniontown Invitational with a time of 16:42, took third at the section meet with a time of 16:38 and placed third again at Grove City with a time of 16:30. The Grove City time was a personal best.
But the three races took its toll on Susalla. He said he could barely walk following the Grove City Invitational on Oct. 5, so he took another week off.
"There aren't too many people who could run through what he's run through and done what he's done this season," Ionta said
Susalla has continued to see DeAngelo throughout the season and returned to training 10 days ago for today's WPIAL meet. He is hoping to again make it to Hershey.
"I want to qualify for states again," Susalla said. "With my injury I'd be satisfied with that. Hopefully, I'll be able to get a personal best and finish higher than I did last season."
It would add to an ever improving cross country resume that's still less than 2 years old.