Jack Zardecki was too young and too new to the Dallas Area School District to have any idea what he was getting into when he decided to go for a run with a neighbor three years ago.
Having moved from the Wyoming Valley West School District between seventh and eighth grades, Zardecki joined soon-to-be junior high basketball teammate Jay Bittner on a late-summer run.
Bittner also ran cross country and Zardecki thought the idea might make sense when they took off on what at the time was supposed to be a conditioning run for the winter sports season.
Zardecki has been on the fast track ever since, all the way to honors as the Times Leader Boys Cross Country Runner of the year.
While Bittner remains on the basketball court as the leader of the Mountaineers’ varsity team, he’s also has made another contribution to the Dallas athletic program by helping to find the leader of the two-time PIAA Class 2A state champions.
“It was just something where I thought, ‘Why not? I could get some conditioning from this,’” said Zardecki, who had never trained in distance running and had only ventured to compete up to 800 meters in one year of junior high track at Wyoming Valley West.
Zardecki went from trying to run alongside Bittner to joining him on the cross country team shortly after practice had begun for the 2013 junior high season.
Although, he’d missed the first few practices, the newcomer announced his potential the first time he competed.
Zardecki picked up a trophy with a ninth-place finish at the season-opening Cliff Robbins Invitational where he immediately became the team’s No. 1 runner.
“At that point, I was still just figuring I would see what happens, but I did well,” Zardecki said.
Zardecki, Bittner and several of what are now Zardecki’s varsity cross country teammates went on to win the Wyoming Valley Conference junior high title with the quickly-improving Zardecki taking fourth in the season-ending conference championship meet.
It wasn’t until after his first varsity year in the sport for Zardecki to have any inkling of what he had gotten into — and what potential he had in the sport.
“I was way, way too young to understand,” Zardecki said.
Dominic DeLuca won the state individual boys championship in 2013 and then the Dallas girls won the state team championship in 2014.
Track and field coach Amy Rome followed up to make sure Zardecki would also be running in the spring and he turned his attention to the 1,600 and 3,200-meter runs.
The accomplishments of the older Dallas runners were a sign of the possibilities to Zardecki and his teammates.
With Zardecki leading the way, they, of course, arrived ahead of schedule.
“We just kind of figured since we were going to be coming up, we might be able to do it some day,” Zardecki said. ” … Throughout the years, we always thought that my junior year, we’d have quite a few juniors and a senior and it might be time.
“We happened to pull it off one year early.”
Of the eight runners who have been in the seven-runner lineup for the district and state championships the past two seasons, four, including Zardecki, are in the current junior class and two are sophomores.
Still a relatively young high school boys lineup, they coped with the enormous expectations of running together as defending state champions.
“They were all very level-headed about this thing,” said Matt Samuel, who was chosen as the Times Leader Boys and Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year.
Zardecki showed the way, beginning, once again, with the Cliff Robbins Invitational where he won the individual title and the Mountaineers finished first as a team.
Dallas went unbeaten for the sixth straight WVC season and defended another title with Zardecki running the fastest time of the day by a WVC athlete at the District 2 Championships.
That put the team back in Hershey where Zardecki repeated as individual medalist, as well as state champion. He moved up from 25th a year ago to seventh this season.
“I think goal-setting is really important,” said Zardecki, who is driven to keep improving after his meteoric rise in the sport.
Qualify for the state track meet, defending team cross country titles while moving up higher in the state ranks individually and getting himself prepared for a college running career are all targets.
The course of Zardecki’s athletic career has ventured far behind a run through a new neighborhood.