By Jim Hague
After playing soccer in the fall, Queen of Peace freshman Natalie Negroni wanted to try something different in the spring months.
“My brother (Daniel) was on the track team at Queen of Peace,” Negroni said. “I always wanted to try it. I had no idea how I would do.”
Queen of Peace track and field coach Nick Mazzolla, who returned to coaching this spring after a nine-year hiatus, also had no preconceptions about what Negroni _ or any other athlete on his team – could do.
So on the first day of practice, Mazzolla, who spent 16 years as the head track coach at North Arlington High School, took one single hurdle and put it in the middle of the grass field behind QP.
“One of the most favorite things to coach was always the hurdles,” Mazzolla said. “So I stuck a hurdle on the grass and didn’t even call it a hurdle. I told them all to jump over that thing. I noticed what Natalie did. With no direction whatsoever, she jumped over the hurdle with technique. She actually glided over it. She said she never did it before, but she sure looked like she did.”
Negroni was a total novice to the sport.
“I really didn’t think I could do it,” Negroni said. “I was afraid I was going to fall. I thought the hurdle was really high. I didn’t think I had the right technique. I thought it was all wrong. I sort of galloped over it.”
Mazzolla saw promise.
“After we started working on it together, she just got better and better,” Mazzolla said. “I’d say she was a natural.”
In her first meet, Negroni finished third behind two girls from Lyndhurst, but Mazzolla knew that he had something special.
“I could sense that she had the knack of it,” Mazzolla said. “From that first race on, she’s been incredible.”
You can say that.
That’s because the total newcomer blazed the trail in the hurdles for the entire outdoor track season, improving with every stride.
In the 400-meter intermediate hurdles, Negroni won the gold medal at the Bergen County Seat meet at Mahwah in late April. She then followed up that performance by winning the gold medal at the Bergen County Championships earlier this month with a time of 67.9. She was then second at the Bergen County Meet of Champions, running in 65.5 and captured the NJSIAA Non-Public B state sectional championship in 65.8.
Last weekend, at the overall NJSIAA Non-Public B state championships in South Plainfield, Negroni appeared headed to a state title.
“She had a good start and as she’s running around, I looked at the stop watch and she’s going to break her own record,” Mazzolla said. “She just cleared the ninth hurdle. I looked down at the stop watch and I looked up and she was on the ground. She fell. She was crushing the field, but she still got up and finished second.”
For good measure, Negroni also finished fourth in the high jump and sixth in the 100-meter high hurdles, meaning that she has now qualified for the NJSIAA Meet of Champions this week in three different events.
Not bad for a freshman with no experience whatsoever.
For her efforts, Negroni has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“I never thought I’d be this good, especially in the hurdles,” Negroni said. “It’s been an awesome experience. It’s really too amazing to believe. I’ve only been training two months and look what has happened. Considering my experience, I can’t believe this.”
And she becomes the first QP athlete to qualify for the Meet of Champions in three events since superstar and former Observer Female Athlete of the Year Janine Davis did it in 2005.
“That’s really cool,” Negroni said. “I didn’t know that.”
Negroni will try to compete in all three events at the Meet of Champions. That alone will be a feat in itself. She’s now determined to become an even better competitor in track and field.
“I definitely want to improve a lot and I’d love to compete in track in college,” Negroni said.
It’s nice to have goals, but it’s still an astounding three years away. Instant success will do that to you.
“I knew I’d probably be a sprinter, because I knew I wasn’t any good in long events,” Negroni said. “I really didn’t know how good I’d be.”
How good? Try state sectional champion good.
“I’ve had a lot of girls with natural ability, but Natalie is beyond that,” Mazzolla said. “She’s a legitimate track athlete. I tell her all the time that she can do anything. She’s starting to understand her potential now. I think track is her sport and her potential in track is endless. Her future is limitless. It is remarkable that she doesn’t realize it.”
“He tells me that all the time,” Negroni said. “I realize now what I’ve done.”
And in all honesty, what she can still do. This is a star on the rise.