By BRIAN CUNNIFF
Leo Zaccaria has done something that not many high school athletes have — he holds program records in distance running for two different Cape May County high schools.
That prowess in the sport has landed him an opportunity to compete at the Division I college level, as Zaccaria recently accepted a partial academic and athletic scholarship offer to compete in cross country and track at Rider University beginning this fall.
A resident of North Wildwood, Zaccaria is a full-time student at the Cape May County Technical High School, where he holds the school’s record time in cross country. He was the Big Five meet champion and third at the county meet in cross country last fall.
But Cape May Tech does not offer winter or spring track programs, so Zaccaria is eligible to compete for Wildwood High School, the public high school that serves his hometown. All Zaccaria has done at Wildwood is set outdoor records in the 800, 3200 and 5000, as well as indoor records in the 800 and 1600.
“I like it,” Zaccaria said of representing two different schools in athletics. “I represent the county as a whole, kind of. I get to do my best in cross country for Tech and then I get to come down to Wildwood and run track there.
“It’s a great opportunity because I’d never be able to run track if I wasn’t allowed to run for Wildwood, so it’s been nice for me.”
Zaccaria is somewhat of a late bloomer in the sport. He never tried distance running until he was in eighth grade when his grammar school, Margaret Mace Elementary, first fielded a cross country team.
“I loved it,” Zaccaria said. “I felt like I finally found a sport I excelled at and that I was good at. It’s so free, running on your own. It’s a hard sport to do but it’s fun. And the more you work at it, the better you get at it.”
Zaccaria started turning heads with significant time improvements as a high school junior. He was a Group I state qualifier in the 1600 last spring. In the fall of his senior year, Zaccaria won the Big Five meet by 38 seconds and finished behind two talented Ocean City runners at the county meet. He went on to set Cape May Tech’s cross country record of 16 minutes, 5 seconds, at the Cape-Atlantic League championship meet. He was also a two-time state meet qualifier in cross country.
After setting the half mile and mile indoor records for Wildwood over the winter, Zaccaria set the 5000-meter outdoor record time of 16:23 at the Moorestown Invitational and the 3200-meter outdoor record time of 9:56.47 while winning the small-school race at a meet at Cherokee in April.
He then set a new 800-meter record at Wildwood with a second-place performance in 2:04.32 at Friday’s Cape May County Championships. He also moved to within striking distance of Wildwood’s 1600-meter record at the county meet, finishing second in the race in 4:33.72.
Zaccaria, who is a triplet, is usually a tad late for Wildwood’s practices each day. After school lets out at Tech, Zaccaria drives his sisters, Elyssa and Allie, who are also seniors at Tech, home before arriving at Maxwell Field for practice.
“They’re usually just getting started when I get there, so it’s not a big deal,” Zaccaria said.
Zaccaria will compete in cross country and indoor and outdoor track at Rider, where he said he plans to major in criminal justice.
Zaccaria said he was also in touch with Division I Monmouth, as well as Division III Elizabethtown, Rowan and Stockton, prior to receiving Rider’s offer.
“It’s been amazing,” Zaccaria said. “I’ve always dreamed of going Division I. I really trained for it all four years of high school. I’ve done a lot of work and it’s great to see it pay off.”
Zaccaria is looking forward to reaching his potential as a college runner.
“I probably haven’t put in as much time as others have because I didn’t start running until eighth grade,” Zaccaria said. “I haven’t been able to reach it all yet. I’m hoping to unleash it and be a better runner than I am now.”