Tara Zeni can jump farther than any other girl in New Jersey—and it’s not close.
On June 8 at Northern Burlington County Regional High School in Columbus, Zeni won the NJSIAA Meet of Champions state title in the girls’ long jump.
The Red Bank Catholic High School senior leaped a distance of 19-02.00 in the final.
The second-place jumper, Randolph High School’s Meghan O’Malley, recorded a final distance of 18-05.00. That’s really good, and O’Malley is a great girls’ track and field athlete. But it’s still almost a full foot shorter than Zeni’s final distance.
“Tara’s performance was pretty neat,” said Red Bank Catholic coach Rob DeFilippis. “She was fired up the week before at the (NJSIAA Non-Public A championship).”
On May 31 at Central Regional High School in Bayville, Zeni placed second in the long jump at the state group title meet. The RBC athlete jumped an 18-07.50, literally a micro distance behind Paramus Catholic High School’s Isabelle Dely, who leaped an 18-10.75 to win the Non-Public A state title.
This came just a week and a half after Zeni won the NJSIAA Non-Public A South sectional title in the long jump, too. During that time in between the sectional and group meets, DeFilippis thought Zeni lost her focus a little.
But he also thought that was natural for a high schooler in the spring of her senior year.
“The group meet was during senior week at school, so you had graduation and all kinds of stuff. Prom. Award ceremonies,” DeFilippis said. “Your head is in a million places and it’s tough to stay focused.”
“Once that stuff was over, she was able to get back on task and focus,” he added.
Zeni’s concentration during practice in the week leading up to the Meet of Champions translated once she stepped into the pit at Northern Burlington. There was a headwind whipping her in the face, the worst kind of impediment for a long jumper.
It seemed to affect Zeni’s rivals, but not Zeni. She just made a minor adjustment with Red Bank Catholic’s jump coach, Joe Gallagher, DeFilippis’s assistant. The senior “backed her steps up a little from where she started,” DeFilippis said. “That way she gets faster as she goes.”
Then, even against a stiff headwind, Zeni raced forward and jumped the farthest distance of her career by six inches. Her 19-02.00 number also set a new RBC program record for the girls’ long jump.
“She had something to prove,” DeFilippis said. “Most kids would be excited about second in the group. She was angry. She had a saltiness.”
“I said, ‘Take this to motivate you, get fired up and put it out there next week,'” the coach added. “She came in and improved six inches from her lifetime best, and with a headwind.”
After the event on June 8, DeFilippis walked over to Zeni and hugged her. Then she said something back to him.
“She said, ‘It was my last time in a Caseys singlet and I had to do it right,'” DeFilippis remembered.
But the Meet of Champions was not the last event of Zeni’s high school career. On June 16 in Greensboro, N.C., she jumped in the New Balance Nationals Outdoor meet.
DeFilippis was confident that Zeni could announce her presence on a national stage, too, and she put up a respectable showing. The senior placed 11th out of 41 runners with a distance of 18-03.00.
“She’s just so tough,” DeFilippis said. “And such a great athlete.”