June 1, 2022

Making Big Impact in Debut Season for PHS Boys’ Track, Junior Della Rocca Wins 200, 400 at Mercer County Meet

ROCK STAR: Princeton High junior sprinter Zach Della Rocca displays his form at the Mercer County Track and Field Championships last weekend. Junior Della Rocca starred at county meet, winning the 400 meters in a school-record time of 48.52 and taking first in the 200 meters. Della Rocca’s heroics helped PHS place fourth in the team standings with 47 points in a competition won by WW/P-North (78). (Photo provided by Ben Samara)

By Justin Feil

Zach Della Rocca’s speed has been a big asset on the soccer field for Princeton High and he always wondered how it would translate in track and field.

The junior in his first year running for the PHS boys’ track team set his second school record while winning a pair of events at the Mercer County Track and Field Championships Friday and Saturday.

“I love it,” said Della Rocca of his introduction to track.“It’s very addicting. It’s a very different type of fitness that you don’t get from soccer. We do a lot of weight training which I really enjoy doing. It’s helped me, especially mentally, focus on being able to compete. It requires a lot of mental attention. Anxiety builds so you have to stay calm. I’ve seen it help me in many ways, and I really enjoy it.”

In the 400 meters at the county meet, Della Rocca took first in 48.52, smashing the previous school record of 49.42.

“At Penn Relays, I split 48.4, which was better than the record, but it didn’t count because it was a relay,” said Della Rocca. “I knew I had it in me and I was just really trying to do it in an open 400 at a time that would count for the record. That was my goal going into it and I gave it everything to try to get it.”

Della Rocca also placed sixth in the 100 meters Friday in 11.31 seconds to earn more points for the PHS boys, who finished fourth with 47 points despite missing some athletes.(WW/P-North placed first in the competition with 78.) Della Rocca came back Saturday to win the 200 meters in 22.39 seconds even with a stumble early in the race.

“I was surprised I won the 200,” said Della Rocca, who posted the school-record 21.79 seconds on May 10. “The competition for the 200 is so good. Any of us in the last two heats could have taken that. I was really surprised and happy that I won that.”

Della Rocca hasn’t even been competing for a full year, yet has two school records. He was happy to add the 400 meters mark to his 200 record while continuing to reset his goals.

“It means so much to me,” said Della Rocca. “It’s something I never thought I could do. At the beginning of the season, walking in, seeing the record board, I didn’t realize that would be something I could do. These past couple races, I realized I could probably do it. To end up doing it, it’s huge and it means a lot to my track career and what I can do and keep doing.”

Della Rocca’s success has opened his eyes to a new future. He is now focused on pursuing track and field after high school, a surprise turn of events for someone who just wanted to see how fast he could run when he joined the team.

“I definitely have to say track is the one I’m focusing on now because I’m seeing I can go a lot further in track than I can in soccer,” said Della Rocca. “I still love soccer too and I’m excited to go out there in the fall and play soccer.”

The PHS boys’ program is thrilled that they will get Della Rocca for another year. His promising start to the year began with his first season of winter track, and he has improved steadily through the spring.

“We’re so happy that Zach came out for the team this year and that he’s able to be with us,” said PHS head coach Ben Samara.

“His attitude and the way that he carries himself is reminiscent of the guys who were on that state championship team on 2018. And that’s something that we’re really trying to get back to, that mentality of grind and put your head down and get your work done and by all means necessary get yourself better. Zach embodies that and he’s a great example, even in year one, for our entire team.”

The Tigers have come to expect big things from Della Rocca already. But the records have impressed them because of how much he has been able to lower his times with a relatively short amount of training.

“I didn’t expect that fast that quickly,” said Samara. “We expected that fast eventually. Zach has really embraced the 400 as his main event. He’s run it six or
seven times and he gets better and better every time. I was also surprised at the time a little bit because he was a second ahead of everyone else. I can only dream about what he’s going to run when he’s in a race with five guys who are pushing each other. Zach is a real gamer. I definitely see some 47s this year and in his future.”

Like many sprinters, Della Rocca was originally worried about running the 400 meters. It’s an event that requires runners to sustain top speed beyond a comfortable distance as they make their way the entire way around the track as opposed to the far shorter 100 meters or the half-a-track 200 meters.

“I’m better at the 400,” said Della Rocca. “What I’m noticing is I can keep my speed going longer than a lot of the short sprinters can. I think that’s from soccer, the many years I played soccer just building that endurance. I think that’s why I’m better at the 400.”

Della Rocca has surprised himself with his spring success. He didn’t anticipate being so quick in outdoor after testing the waters during the indoor season.

“I’ve met my goals,” said Della Rocca. “Coming from indoor, the times are so much slower, I think that got to my head. I was running a 22.7 200 and then you see on the record board, 21.9, and think that’s so far away. Beating that, I’ve definitely met my goals. I did not expect the differences to be so great between indoor and outdoor. I’m really excited about it.”

Della Rocca owned the only wins of the county meet for PHS, though there were other notable performances. Andrew Kenny ran a personal-record 1:57.14 in the boys 800 meters to take second behind Wilberforce’s Jeremy Sallade’s 1:55.45. Oleg Brennan was third in the boys discus and Henry Zief was third in the boys javelin. Kenny placed fourth in the boys 1,600 and the boys 4×800 took fifth place.

“This was an interesting county meet,” said Samara. “We were missing so many people on both sides just from injury and illness on the girls side and some school activities that took some of our guys away. We didn’t have a full team on either side. That was frustrating but it’s always nice to see some of those great individual performances to let you know that we’re still here and we’re still a strong squad.”

Peyton Reynolds highlighted the day for the girls’ squad. The senior jumped 9’0 to win the girls pole vault. She won the CVC Championship last year in the same event.

“She’s worked really, really hard and recently set a new personal best,” said Samara of Reynolds’ 9’6 clearance the week before. “She’s been a steady hand for us the last couple years in the pole vault. We’re going to miss her a lot.”

Ava Tabeart ran to fourth in the girls 400-meter hurdles in 1:09.23. Robin Roth placed third in the girls 3,200 meters in 11:37.30 and ran 5:19.11 for fourth in the girls 1,600 meters. Ada Metaxas took sixth in the girls long jump.

“Robin had a season best in the 1600 and then comes back in the two-mile with a solid time placing in the top 3,” said Samara, whose girls’ squad tied Hightstown and Wilberforce School for sixth in the team standings with 29 points in the competition won by Allentown with 110. “She’s another one who’s been a steady hand for a while who hopefully is going to have another breakthrough soon.”

The PHS teams will compete in the Central Jersey Group 4 sectional this Friday and Saturday in Howell. The Little Tigers expect to be closer to full strength as they look to send as many athletes through to the Group 4 state meet.

“They’ve been working hard all season and this is the time of year when those marks really start to drop,” said Samara. “So just keeping them injury free and then trying to get as many of these kids personal bests as we can, and that’s not just for sectionals and groups. We host two last-chance meets in June to give even our freshmen and sophomores and our novice athletes a chance to get a really awesome June PR.”

For Della Rocca, the state meets are a chance to race stronger competition that could push him to snap his own record. The county championships were the latest chance to affirm that he can run at a high standard. The meet was a good lead-in to the state competition.

“It gives me confidence in knowing I can do these times and I can compete on this level,” said Della Rocca. “It’s mainly confidence knowing I can do it and if I try hard enough I can be successful at these meets.”

Della Rocca is looking for a strong finish to his first year of running. He came in unsure of exactly how it would go. His only previous track experience came in seventh grade.

“Even then it was mixed with my soccer season so I didn’t have the full commitment to it,” said Della Rocca. “It’s a lot harder to see what your potential is when you’re that young and you see the times, but you don’t know what they mean.”

Della Rocca had been considering running since coming to the high school, but it wasn’t until this year that he tested his speed that had always been his calling card in soccer. It’s worked out well for the PHS track team and Della Rocca, who is off to a record-setting start in his young sprinting career.

“I’ve always wanted to try it, but with COVID, it became hard,” said Della Rocca. “This last soccer season, my coach would say, ‘When you go out on the field, use your speed’ That curiosity of what I could do on the track, I knew I had to try it. I’m glad I did.”