North Xtra: Mars senior copes, jumps to WPIAL title

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The championship moment, the one an athlete works for and dreams of during months and even years of training, was admittedly a hazy one for Sonny Zangaro.

Competing in the high jump last Thursday in the WPIAL Class AAA track and field individual championships, Zangaro, a senior at Mars Area High School, was preparing for a final jump at 6 feet, 5 inches. Through the rain that fell continuously throughout the afternoon and evening, Zangaro ran toward the bar and jumped back-first over it.

As he fell to the mat, he took a quick second before looking up to see the bar was still in place. It was then that he knew he won, but as opposed to some who are immediately overcome with emotion, it took a little longer for Zangaro to fully process what had just happened.

"I want to say I was crazy and really happy, but it takes a lot of time to hit you," he said. "As soon as I won, I had no idea. I knew I was a WPIAL champion, but I honestly couldn't feel it. It was too crazy to believe."

The first-place finish was the pinnacle of a track and field career in which Zangaro has competed in several events, most notably the 400-meter dash and the 300-meter intermediate hurdles.

As a freshman in 2011, he was 15th in the high jump at the WPIAL championships and finished 16th the following year. His junior season, Zangaro did not participate in the high jump, instead focusing on other events. That year, he finished eighth in the 300 hurdles.

With his final high school season came the decision to focus his efforts solely on the high jump. Combined with a strong work ethic, the choice to specialize has paid off, most recently evidenced by his gold medal last week.

"He's just relentless," Mars track and field coach Aaron Rekich said. "He's not just a 3 to 5 p.m. practice high jumper. He does it on his own, he looks at film, he goes to camps.

"With the high jump, I believe that's more of his passion and I believe that's why he's been more successful this year. He just doesn't stop working hard."

What made his winning jump more impressive to many was the fact it was completed in less-than-ideal conditions -- to be charitable.

The first day of the WPIAL championships was plagued by consistent downpours, which got so bad that the meet was stopped about halfway through and was not completed until two days later.

Zangaro and the other high jumpers, however, had to compete in the rain. In a sport requiring a certain amount of precision and concentration, not to mention good traction, it would seem difficult for a jumper to do anything close to their best, but for Zangaro, it was different.

Throughout the year, Rekich had made a point to include mental training in the team's workouts, something he knew would prepare them for the kind of adverse weather conditions in Western Pennsylvania.

For one of his star athletes, it paid off.

"I actually looked at it as an advantage," Zangaro said. "I've been teaching myself to love to jump in the rain and the bad weather for the past two years. I knew I was going to be mentally stronger than the other athletes who went into it. I looked at it as a blessing rather than a shortcoming."

With the WPIAL championships completed, Zangaro's attention turns to the PIAA championships Saturday. He's hoping to place in the top eight, potentially even winning a medal, or doing well enough to help him get to his goal of walking on at Penn State.

The competition he will face will undoubtedly be stronger, meaning that he'll have to continue doing what he did last week -- bring his best.

"I was telling him 'You've just got to stay your focus within yourself. You can't worry about what everyone else is going to do and just do your best,'" Rekich said. "Hopefully, he emerges as the victor, but it's all on Sonny now. None of us can do anything to help him at this point."

Craig Meyer: and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG

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