Paladino took big leap forward

By Justin Feil, Assistant Sports Editor
   The increments of improvement are usually small for athletes already at a high level.
   Fiona Paladino’s gains in track in field in 2010 looked like a giant leap.
   ”I think it’s been a progression every year,” said the Montgomery High School junior. “I think this is definitely one of the best ones.”
   Paladino came off another strong indoor track and field season looking for a spring season that would demonstrate that she was taking steps forward in preparing to be a collegiate athlete one day. She wanted better marks and better finishes.
   ”Coming out of the winter, I wanted to jump 5-10,” Paladino said. “That was one of my goals. I wanted to get a lower time in the hurdles. I wanted to get it under 15 seconds, and I did. I was pretty content with it.”
   Paladino was more consistent as a junior with her finishes and her clearances. She had a new standard for herself, particularly in her top event, the high jump.
   ”Last year, I went from jumping 5-4 to being able to jump 5-9 quickly,” Paladino said. “After having that under belt, and having that experience, I was upset to not jump 5-8 at meets this year. Hurdles just came with time. My goal is to bring my time down from 14.7. There’s still more I can learn for hurdles and high jump.”
   Continuing to strive for something better made Paladino’s junior spring one to treasure. Early in the season, she teamed with Elizabeth Andreassen to win the Somerset County Relays while breaking a nine-year-old record, and she ran a leg for the winning shuttle hurdles team. She won the girls high jump, placed second in the 100 hurdles and fifth in the 100 meters at the Somerset County Championships. She won the high jump in a meet-record 5-8, placed second in the 100 hurdles and took fifth in the long jump at the Skyland Conference Championships.
   In both of those championship meets, Paladino wasn’t entirely healthy, but a strained hamstring only prevented her from entering a fourth event, and she contributed mightily as the Cougars defended team titles at both meets.
   At the Central Jersey, Group IV meet, Paladino advanced in three of the four events that she entered. She won the high jump, earned fifth in the hurdles and sixth in the long jump. She was 14th in the 100 meters.
   At the Group IV meet the next week, she repeated as high jump champion by equaling her season-best 5-8, ran a personal-best 14.76 for fifth in the 100 hurdles and posted another personal best in the long jump of 16-11 for 13th place.
   She advanced to the Meet of Champions where she became the first Montgomery gold medalist — by a couple hours over triple jumper Addy Sonaike — when she cleared a personal-record 5-feet-10, which equaled the state meet record and set a new Somerset County record. She went on to place fourth in the high jump at the New Balance Outdoor Nationals to earn All-America.
   Fiona Paladino is the Princeton Packet Girls’ Track and Field Athlete of the Year.
   ”She just had a fantastic year,” said MHS head coach Jim Goodfriend. “She was undefeated in high jump, she got her time in the high hurdles down below 15. She broke the county record in high jump and tied the state record. She won the county, won sectionals, won Skylands, won Group IV. She won everything. She qualified for the Meet of Champions in the highs. She had a fantastic year.”
   Goodfriend has watched Paladino’s steady progression into a champion. He has seen the work that she has put in to reach her goals.
   ”She’s very goal oriented,” he said. “She works hard. She’s an incredible athlete. I know she could play soccer. She could play basketball if she wanted to. She was a really good basketball player in middle school at Stuart. She’s just dedicated herself to one sport.”
   That dedication is paying off as colleges try to woo Paladino for her multi-sport potential.
   ”She’s capable of jumping 18-feet plus in the long jump too,” Goodfriend said. “And she can run a good 800 if she puts her mind to it.”
   Only her hamstring prevented her from competing more in the long jump this year, and she still possesses the 100-meter speed to compete with some of the state’s top sprinters. But her focus this year became the hurdles and the high jump, the two events in which she qualified for the MOC. Paladino had to pass on a chance at the hurdles at the MOC, but it was the right choice when she cleared a new personal best of 5-10 on the state’s biggest stage for the state crown.
   ”I think it was perfect timing,” Paladino said. “At Duke (on Monday), they introduced me as, ‘This is Fiona Paladino, the state champion from New Jersey.’ I didn’t realize how important it was. It’s something I always wanted to win and it’s something I can hopefully do winter and spring.”
   With another year of maturity and improvement, anything is possible for Paladino.
   ”It’s possible she can do 6-feet,” Goodfriend said. “That would break the state record. She’s got all the talent in the world.
   ”Her maturity level, just the way she approached it was different this year. Freshman year she learned. Last year she won the Group IV championship. It started to fall in line for her. The sky’s the limit with her talent.”
   Paladino had to knock off two-time defending state high jump champion Emily Kianka to finally win the first state title for the Cougars.
   ”I feel like the pressure was a little off me because of Emily,” Paladino said. “I think all bets were on her for most anything. Things worked out differently, and I peaked at the right time. Freshman year, it was nerves. Sophomore year, I had the pressure of jumping 5-9 and being the best in the state at the time. I also knew I could do it this time. That was a big part of it.”
   Said Goodfriend: “She set her goal to make 5-10, and she did it. She set her goals to run under 15 in the highs and did it. She had an incredible year.”
   Paladino has bigger goals for next year. Improving on a banner season will be tough, but a couple of changes last year helped push her to her finest season yet.
   ”I started weight training this year,” Paladino said. “That was something different. I was more focused in my events than I ever have been. I stopped doing as much of the sprint workouts and did more hurdles and I went to a lot of high jump clinics and worked with my outside coach more. I knew going into junior year, this is the most important year to be seen. I was focused on showing everyone what I could do.”
   What they saw was another jump in Paladino, one that has her set up for a big senior year and beyond.
   ”I think I showed there’s improvement every year,” Paladino said. “If that keeps happening, that looks good going into college the next four years.”