CROSS COUNTRY Mooney's Zajac ready for district

The defending champion spent most of the season recovering from a stress fracture.
YOUNGSTOWN -- In mid-March, Val Zajac was running up a hill by Rocky Ridge when she felt something snap.
"I thought I had pulled my quad," she said. "I didn't really know what it was, but it hurt."
The news wasn't good. Zajac suffered a stress fracture in her femur, a rare injury that sidelined her for four months.
Suddenly, the regional cross country champion and Cardinal Mooney High's most promising runner saw her track season wiped out. Soon after Zajac began running again in July, she ran a 4-mile race.
"I thought I was going to die," she said. "My lungs just weren't used to it."
Three months later, Zajac still hasn't fully recovered.
"Up until three weeks ago, she was still limping," said Mooney coach Adrian Mangino. "She's probably a minute off her time from last year."
Super sophomore: Last year was a dream season for Zajac. She was district champion and won the regional by almost 30 seconds. She placed fifth at the state meet -- and she was just a sophomore.
Zajac could have sulked about the injury. Runners she beat last season have returned the favor. Times in the 18-minute range have become times in the 20-minute range. But she doesn't complain -- she knows she still has her senior year.
"I'm just trying to stay positive," she said.
She is starting to see results. Zajac took second at last week's Sim Earich meet and won the Steel Valley Conference championship two weeks ago for the third straight year. Only one runner has won SVC all four years: Fitch's Andrea Cohol in 1992-95.
"Winning SVC really helped her confidence. We brought her along slow and she's been getting stronger."
Added Zajac, "It was awesome. I want to be a four-year champion."
Zajac enters Saturday's district race at the Trumbull County Fairgrounds in her best shape of the season. She could repeat as district champ and leads a Mooney team favored to repeat as girls champion.
She probably won't repeat as regional champ -- West Branch junior Lisa Davies is favored -- but will likely qualify for the state meet in Columbus. If things go well, Zajac could finish in the top-25 and earn all-state honors.
"I'm trying to have a good season," she said. "I hope I keep improving."
Looking ahead: Mooney's boys team also won the district last year, but will probably finish behind Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary, who beat them at Sim Earich and at Boardman earlier this year.
Returning champion Joe Taylor, a senior at Mooney, will challenge St. V-M's Anthony Mion and Matt Buzek.
"I'm basically running for time," Taylor said. "I'll just try to hang with Mion and Buzek. Our team is shooting for winning it, but we know Saint V's is tough."
Mooney ran at Trumbull last week, but heavy rain tore up the course.
"We like harder conditions and hilly courses," Mangino said. "They changed the course from last week because it was so muddy. The conditions will still be tough."
Erik Moss, Dan Finnerty, Ben Garcher and Tom Driscoll will need to run well for Mooney to repeat. Deanna Shorsten, Stephanie Rosa, Erin Driscoll and Anna Novosel lead the girls team, which has a better chance to repeat, Taylor said.
"Not to put a pessimistic spin on it, but the girls are more likely to win than us," he said.