In long-distance races, you’ll often find the leaders glued together for most of the race, feeding off each other’s momentum and only starting to break off toward the final lap.
When Brownsville’s Jolena Quarzo runs, though, it’s a noticeably different story.
Even at the WPIAL championship meet, Quarzo looks like she is running a race of her own, almost like she is out for a leisurely jog or simply warming up on the track as she comes around the bend during the 3200 finals. You see her turn the corner, and you might think to yourself — is this the actual race? Where are the rest of the runners?
And then, you remember this is Quarzo we’re talking about. She’s used to being out on her own, far away from the cluster of second-place hopefuls all the way on the opposite side of the track, trailing her by a full 200 meters as the race begins to wind down.
So how does Quarzo keep putting up ludicrous times while winning title after title — all without anybody pushing her to the limit or even within sight? Doesn’t she ever get bored or lonely out there?
Well, not really.
“I obviously want to win, but at the same time, it’s more of a saving it for states type thing,” Quarzo said. “I try to keep it at a good pace, like a good workout pace, but nothing too crazy. … I know I’m probably not going to PR [at WPIALs], so I don’t stress about not doing it. Just racing myself and trying to do the best of my ability.”
On Wednesday, Quarzo captured her third consecutive WPIAL Class 2A title in the 3200 and her second consecutive crown in the 1600, winning the 1600 in 5:05.28 and the 3200 in 10:55.07 — nearly 37 seconds ahead of runner-up Chelsea Hartman of Shady Side Academy. And remember, she didn’t compete as a freshman because all spring sports seasons were canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Still, Quarzo doesn’t lament the fact that she missed out on a chance to win a WPIAL title in 2020. That’s because she humbly admits she wouldn’t have won it that year, anyway.
No, what Quarzo really regrets is not having the opportunity to compete alongside her older sister, Gionna, who was a senior at Brownsville in 2020. Gionna was a two-time WPIAL champion and two-time PIAA champion in the 3200 as a sophomore and junior in 2018 and 2019. She is now a junior at N.C. State.
Next year, Quarzo will finally get the chance to team up with her older sister, as the five-time WPIAL champ and three-time PIAA champ is also Raleigh-bound.
“I’m very excited,” Quarzo said. “I guess God made it work by making us go to the same college.”
At last year’s state championship meet, Quarzo won both the 1600 and 3200 while setting a PIAA Class 2A championship record in the 3200 with a time of 10:19.41 — breaking Gionna’s record of 10:25.91 set in 2019. Like her older sister, Quarzo competes in cross country for Brownsville during the fall, and she already etched her name in WPIAL history by becoming the 12th girl to win three WPIAL cross country titles. Gionna won one as a senior in 2019.
“I try not to think of it as a competition,” Jolena Quarzo said. “Of course, I think we both are very competitive with each other. But to me, it was two different things then. We don’t have prelims now and finals, and the 1600 and 3200 are on two separate days [at states], so to me, it’s a bit more of an advantage for me. So I just keep that in mind.”
The younger Quarzo will have the chance to make even more history next week when she attempts to complete a PIAA championship three-peat — something Gionna didn’t get the opportunity to do in 2020. To do so would be the icing on the cake for what has already been an unforgettable high school career. Heck, Quarzo might even have someone pushing her at the end this time — maybe enough to lower that state championship meet record one last time.
Then again, if Quarzo winds up alone in front of the pack again, that’s fine with her, too. After all, she’s used to it by now.
“It’s just nice to see how much I’ve grown since my sophomore year,” Quarzo said. “It’s kind of a bittersweet moment. It’s sad to leave the WPIAL, but at the same time, I’m ready for it.”
Steve is a sports writer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but he's currently on strike. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.