Tara Zeni proudly displays the gold medal she won in the long jump at the June 8 NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High School. Courtesy photo

Tara Zeni proudly displays the gold medal she won in the long jump at the June 8 NJSIAA Meet of Champions at Northern Burlington High School. Courtesy photo

By Rich Fisher | Contributing Editor

Once Tara Zeni could no longer flip through the air as a gymnast, she began to fly through the air as a long jumper.

And on June 8, the Red Bank Catholic senior flew to the moon by winning the NJSIAA Meet of Champions gold medal with a leap of 19-feet, 2-inches at Northern Burlington High School in Columbus.

“This means the world to me,” Zeni said. “It’s an honor just to qualify for the Meet of Champs, but to win the gold is beyond words. It is an amazing feeling knowing I gave it my all and took first place in my last meet representing Red Bank Catholic. I always dreamed of going to the MOC, but I could never have imagined winning an event there when I was a sophomore.”

There’s good reason for that, as Zeni was a latecomer to the sport.

Up until her freshman year, Zeni was a competitive gymnast and had no time for other sports. But a nagging back injury became too painful to deal with after eighth grade, and she had to give it up. A friend convinced her to try spring track in ninth grade.

After doing triple jump, pole vault, high jump and hurdles as a freshman, she tried shot, javelin and sprints the next winter and spring seasons as a sophomore, and also started long jump that spring. She won the Non-Public A South sectionals and took third in the states. Last year, she won the Monmouth County championship and sectionals, took second in states and was seventh in the MOC.

Zeni exploded this spring, winning sectionals in triple and long jump; taking third in triple and second in long at states before winning the MOC while beating her personal best mark by 3-1/4 inches. The winning jump came on her second attempt in the trials, so she had to wait a while before knowing it would hold up.

“I knew it was a good jump, but I also knew I was competing with the best of the best, and several of my competitors can jump that far as well,” Zeni said. “I honestly didn’t think it would hold.”

Zeni also qualified for triple jump at MOC but decided not to compete after winning her gold. Interestingly, her youth sport, combined with good coaching, helped fuel her to an upcoming college career, as she will now compete at Quinnipiac University, where her sister Taylor attends. 

“I attribute my success to my gymnastics training, which gave me the speed and strength,” Zeni said. “Also my coaches, Steve Cajuste and Joe Gallagher, really have helped me with my speed and technique.”

Zeni belongs to Nativity of Our Lord Parish, Monroe, and keeps her grandfather’s RBC Class of 1960 ring in her track bag.

“Faith plays a big role in my athletics,” she said. “I silently pray to myself before every meet, and if I’m in a relay, my teammates and I always pray together. Also, I always say a little prayer to my grandpa. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to go to a Catholic high school and have faith be such a big part of my education and athletics.”

In the boys meet, CBA took nine medals, as Tim McInerney was fourth in the 800 and 1600; and Eros Bottino was second in discus and sixth in shot. Also placing were Troy Hill (5th, 3200), Liam O’Hara (5th, 400 hurdles), the 4x200 relay (3rd, Ethan Ferraiola, Ethan Arce, Rafael Coppola, O’Hara), Nicholas Morse (3rd, shot) and Chris Arias (3rd, javelin).

Also medaling were Donovan Catholic’s James Bivins (3rd, 100 meters) and Red Bank Catholic’s Anthony Zamarra (5th, shot). The top eight in each event received medals.