CHATHAM, NJ - The Chatham youth recreation track program started in 2014 is already paying dividends as a feeder system for Chatham High School.
Sam Viola, a 14-year-old freshman, is evidence of that.
On Dec. 23 at Drew University, Viola broke the DeSchriver Invitational winter track boys record in the Jayvee 600-meter run with a time of 1:31.64, erasing the mark of 1:31.83, set 13 years ago by Chris Caggiano, also of Chatham.
"He came up through the junior program," Nick DeSantis, Chatham assistant track coach, said. "I first saw him when he was in 7th grade and he was a standout then, too. He and (Alec) Gironda both stood out from the beginning. (Viola's) race will be the 800 meters, write that down.'
Sam Viola is the Hawk Allstate Chatham Athlete of the Week.
"He can run anything from the 55-meter dash to the 5,000-meter run," Chatham head track coach Patrick Barry said. "He's one of our stud freshmen runners from cross-country. We think middle distances is what he'll be best at. The 600 is a good race for him, but we think the 800 will be a great race for him. He has speed and stamina and he's driven. He loves to run."
Viola first started to gain notice in the fall when he and classmates Alec Gironda and Anthony Scerbo ran their way onto the Cougar varsity cross-country squad. All three finished in the top 25 in an unofficial state freshmen race held in the fall. All three earned cross-country varsity letters, a rarity.
But Viola is the one with the fastest start to the winter track season with his speed and ability to kick down the stretch.
"I've always run, but not competitively until I joined the recreation program," Viola said. "I did play soccer for nine years before I ran track. I wasn't that good at soccer and I wasn't going anywhere with it. I was always a fast runner, so I quit soccer and moved to track. I really see a better future in track."
So do his coaches. At the DeSchriver Invitational, Viola trailed in the race after two laps, but passed the leader and then sprinted home alone in the final stretch on his way to setting the record.
"It was really exciting to make a comeback in that race," Viola said. "I didn't know I set a record, but I knew it was a good time. It was a great feeling. Every time I race, I try to set a PR (personal record) and I've pretty much done that. Coming from behind in a race is one of the most fun things and the hardest to do. I try to stay close to the front, but don't take the lead, and in the last lap pass them."
Viola can run an 18-minute 5K race, but he's motivated to run fast in the shorter races like the 400 or the 800.
"Running is just really fun," he said. "When you're sprinting, you kind of feel like you're flying. It's really a great feeling to win a race."
Viola admits it can be intimidating to run against the older athletes in the varsity races.
"The varsity kids are bigger and they just look fast because they're a lot more muscular than me," Viola said. "I don't really look that fast. It's fun because it's a challenge. I wouldn't get much better if I just ran against freshmen."
Viola likely inherited some of his athletic ability from his mother, Cindy, who ran track in high school and also was known for her athleticism as a gymnast.
Viola is quickly making a name for himself as a runner, but right now someone else in his family is a little more well known to the public. His uncle, Vincent Viola, the owner of the NHL's Florida Panthers NHL, was recently nominated to serve as secretary of the Army by President-elect Donald Trump.
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