(Special to National Scholastic Sports Foundation.)
"Wow, this is really amazing," gushed Danielle Tauro.
"It's awesome. It's surprising. I never thought I'd have a day like this."
What this junior star had just done was win the 1,600 meters (4:49.17), win the 800 meters (2:10.88) and wrap up her humongous day at the New Jersey State Meet of Champions, June 8 at South Plainfield High School, by reeling off a 55.9 lap that lifted her school, from far off the pace, to a medal-winning fifth place in the concluding 4x400 relay.
About the only thing slow out of the blocks was the meet itself. It was a day late, thanks to a huge June 7 rainstorm.
Danielle Tauro's school is Southern Regional High School of Manahawkin, Stafford Township, in Ocean County, New Jersey. For sure, Southern Regional has had its share of star track athletes in past years - most notably Bill Hartley, who was the nation's top scholastic pole vaulter of the 1975-76 campaigns - but now it's Tauro's turn to put her school on the national scholastic track and field map all over again.
Southern Regional High School - just as that name implies -is a southerly outpost of New Jersey's Shore Conference. It's actually south of the Mason-Dixon line, if they'd ever extend it to the Atlantic coast. Internationalists/Olympians Andrew Valmon, Frank Budd, Bob Roggy, Barbara Friedrich, Pam Dukes, Bill Reilly, Quentin Wheeler, Milt Goode, Dawn Bowles, et al,are alumni of asorted Shore Conference schools.
Will Tauro eventually add her name to that lustrous list? Many Manahawkinites - and denizens of points far beyond - are now saying the answer is "yes."
And why not? She's as talented as any New Jersey distance person in decades. Recruited for track as an 8th grader, she's a relative newcomer to this sport, yet has already made some incredible strides, strides that figure to be on prominent display in the mile race - against the likes of Jordan Hasay, Anne St. Geme, Colleen Wetherbee and Theresa Rush - at the 2006 Nike Outdoor Nationals.
"I was just standing outside my classroom one day, while they were changing classes," Southern Regional coach Brian Zatorski remembers.
"Do you play any sport?" he asked a young lady strolling by. "No, but I'm in theater and stuff," that lady - Tauro - said. "She was just a smaller version of what she is today," said Zatorski, who soon had her talked into trying out for his team. One thing she was not was an instant success.
"First day of cross country practice, she couldn't even finish the warmup," Zatorski said. "She had this look of terror on her face, like I've just made a big mistake.' ' But Zatorski persisted. He knew the answer would be "this is no mistake."
"Slowly, through that freshman season in cross country, she started finding her legs. But she was still running about 23-24 (minutes for the 5K.) "Indoors, that winter of 2004, her career began blossoming out. "She ran the mile in 5:30, then she got down to 5:18," Zatorski said. "By the time outdoors came around, we kind of knew we had something. "Her first big win was in the Shore Conference (Championships.) She kind of stole that (1,600-meter) race. People began asking who's that?'
"After that, she just kept improving by leaps and bounds, leaps and bounds. "By now, she was finally beginning to get a good training base under her legs."
In her sophomore year, she got into the 4:40s (for the 1600 meters or the mile) twice. As a junior, she's already been there six times, and seems ready to run in that territory any time she'd want to.
The Zatorski game plan calls for Tauro to "really pull the trigger" in Greensboro, to respond to the challenge of facing the nation's best by clocking something in the 4:30's. The NON meet record is Sarah Bowman's 4:36.95 (2005.) The National record is Polly Plummer's 4:35.24 (1982.) Don't bet against Tauro running her way into that exalted record territory. If not in 2006, surely in 2007.
Tauro's credentials are already big-time. She took the 2006 Penn Relays mile title in 4:48.51. She won the Millrose Games girls mile last February, zipping from third to first with a 23.4-second last (160-yard) lap to cross the line in 4:51.86, second best winning time in Millrose annals.
She emerged from a two-week-long flu battle to deliver a 4:50.1 anchor mile for Southern's winning distance medley team at the 2006 Nike Indoor Nationals. And still fresh in some folks' memories is her 4:43.07 sophomore season-capping third place, back only of sensational running by seniors Bowman (4:36.95) and Brie Felnagle (4:39.71), at the 2005 Nike Outdoor Nationals. With the top seven under 4:50, it's no wonder many call it one of the greatest girls mile races in track history.
Last fall, she claimed a solid sixth place in the Foot Locker National XC Championships in San Diego. Glittering as all those feats against interstate competition surely are, it's the array of in-state deeds that are among her most impressive. If you weren't at South Plainfield High School the late afternoon and early evening of June 8, you missed something rather incredible.
It may have been amazing, awesome and surprising to Tauro herself, but it wasn't to her growing legion of fans. Taking the Meet of Champion 1,600-meter final for a third straight year, she almost toyed with the field to breeze home in 4:49.17. Of course, it was the perfect follow-up to her 4:47.55 sophomore triumph in 2005, and her 4:52.79 victory as a freshman in 2004. The 1,600-800 double hadn't been achieved in the Meet of Champions for18 years.
Just one other runner - Chris Engel of Mount Oliver High (1989-90-91-92) - has ever won four Meet of Champions 1,600 titles. Tauro is already an odds-on choice to duplicate the feat - and achieve her big dream - before graduation in 2007. "It looks likes she's poised to do it," said Zatorski, stating the obvious.
The early pace in the M of C 1,600 was slowish (74 and 76-second laps.) Zatrorski had a plan for that, too. "Danielle's going to turn up the heat with 600 to go, and then run each of her 200s after that a little faster than the one before," he said. She did just that. Her final 400 was a 1:06.7.
"All right, Danielle, looking good," Zatorski screamed encouragement from the sideline, going a little hoarse in the process. "When I didn't see anybody else ready to take the lead, nobody was there to push me, I just took it myself," Tauro said, after catching her breath. Her only disappointment: she didn't beat her sophomore time. Then again, she didn't have to.
Oregon, Stanford, Tennessee and Duke are among the major schools already showing great interest in her talents. Oh, and now the truly amazing bit. Would you believe that Tauro may be hard-pressed to keep the Number One spot on her own team? Well, believe. It could actually happen.
Southern Regional freshman Jillian Smith may be even more of a phenomenal prospect than Tauro. Who was Tauro's closest challenger in the Meet of Champions? None other than 14-year-old teammate Smith, clocked in 4:52,56, "The sky's the limit for Jill," smiles Zatorski. "And, you know what? She's just getting started."
Smith ran a 5:30 mile in middle school. She chopped off nearly 37 seconds in one astounding year. She's the real deal, too. Then again, Tauro's not about to let a teammate and training partner get the better of her.
Bottom line: With two like Tauro and Smith coming back, Brian Zatorski knows he may be the most fortunate young coach in America.