Lou Rabito: Garnet Valley's Wellington Zaza moves fast, on and off track

His speed in getting from one place to another - namely, the starting blocks to the finish line - and his jumping skills put Wellington Zaza on the radar of NCAA Division I track programs.

His ability to move rather quickly between other places - namely, high schools - slowed some of his recruiting.

Zaza is a state champion triple jumper and national champion hurdler who considers the triple jump his best event.

But he has gone to three high schools in three years, and that's not exactly a triple jump that college coaches admire.

"That turned off some coaches," said Zaza, a senior at Garnet Valley. "But the ones that really wanted me, they stuck with me through the whole process."

Four stayed long enough to become Zaza's finalists: Texas Christian, Penn State, Ohio State, and Miami (Fla.). He completed what he said was his final official visit, to Ohio State, last week and said he will try to make a decision over the next few weeks.

Called Zaza or "Wellz" - with a Z, he stressed - by most of his friends, he was born in Liberia and came over with his family around 2000, fleeing the country's civil war. He said he has no recollection of the conflict.

Zaza started high school at Upper Darby and stayed through his sophomore year, until "a bunch of family stuff," he said, led his mother and him to relocate to Strath Haven's district.

He competed with the Panthers as a junior, but because of financial problems, he said, he moved in with an aunt in the Garnet Valley district before this school year.

As part of the transfer process, Zaza said he had to submit a written statement that included the reasons for changing schools. When a college coach or administrator expresses concern about the transferring, he added, Garnet Valley faxes over a copy of the statement.

The 18-year-old, who is 5-foot-8 and about 160 pounds, said he learned from one of his AAU basketball coaches why some colleges are leery of all that moving around.

"They want to see an athlete stay in one program and watch them blossom in that program, instead of hopping all over the place," Zaza said.

"I understood that, but it was out of my control. It was family reasons."

Coming off a terrific junior year, Zaza has been a great fit with the Jaguars, coach Andy Etter said.

Zaza won the triple jump (49 feet, 8 inches), was on the Panthers' winning 4x100-meter relay, and placed second in the 300 hurdles (37.69 seconds) and fourth in the 110 hurdles (14.48) last spring at the PIAA Class AAA championships.

Disappointed with his 110 hurdles outing, he rebounded at the New Balance national championships three weeks later in Greensboro, N.C. He won in 13.91 seconds, much faster than his PIAA time.

"I was just a little angry at that point, because I knew at states I could have potentially won the 110 hurdles," Zaza said. "Things didn't go well for me. I hit a couple of hurdles and lost my steps.

"I went back to practice with an angry mind-set. Fixed everything and finally unleashed it."

This year, Zaza won the 60 hurdles and the long and triple jumps in February at the state indoor championships.

His goals for the outdoor season are to go 24 feet in the long jump, 51 feet in the triple jump, faster than 37 seconds in the 300 hurdles, and about 13.5 seconds in the 110 hurdles.

"He's a hard worker. He's a great athlete, and I also tell people he's a great coach. . . . Sometimes I even call him 'Coach,' " Etter said.

"When it comes to hurdles, I tell kids, 'If you want to learn how to hurdle, here's your man to learn from.' "

Contact Lou Rabito

at 215-854-2916

or rabitol@phillynews.com.