As Zach DeCarmine wiggled his feet into place in the starting blocks on Shippensburg University’s track, he had visions of big things over the next 38-or-so seconds. There was a spot high on the PIAA Track and Field Championship podium – maybe even the top step – along with possibly breaking the school record in the 300-meter hurdles and helping State College to its second team title in four years.
So many possibilities, so many thrills and so much joy were waiting at the Seth Grove Stadium finish line on that May afternoon in 2019.
However, he clipped the first hurdle of the race and crashed to the ground, and most of those thrills crashed with him. He could have watched the other seven runners circle the track while he wallowed in self-pity, but a medal and team points are guaranteed to every finisher in that race, and the Little Lions needed every point they could get to grab that team title. He got up, finished way back in eighth place, but earned one team point, and State College would be the state champions.
“To have that ability to not feel down about anything and just to go and literally take the hurdles as they come I think says a lot about Zach,” Little Lions track and field head coach Artie Gilkes said during a June 16 Zoom conference session that included DeCarmine and close to two dozen friends, family members, coaches, teammates and future teammates.
The moment demonstrates DeCarmine’s perseverance – both figuratively and quite literally – throughout his high school life. Many times before and since that day he has been knocked down by an obstacle, gotten up and continued to run. He has been undeterred by a broken arm, a worldwide pandemic, the loss of an entire high school track season and the final months of his senior year, plus seeing his future college dissolve its men’s track and field program before he even got to campus.
“It’s really made me stronger,” said De-Carmine, who recovered to sign with the University of Pittsburgh earlier in June. “You always have to persevere and in the future I know there are going to be more hurdles and bumps, I just have to wait for them to come, adapt and change when they come.”
DeCarmine has plenty of good checks on his resume, including seven medals from state indoor and outdoor championships, five District 6 titles, 2019 indoor and outdoor state team titles, four wins and a dozen All-America honors from USA Track & Field, and was the USATF Mid-Atlantic Athlete of the Year in both 2018 and 2019.
He had been running in track events since middle school, and ran at Saint Joseph’s Catholic Academy as a freshman, but a few months earlier he suffered a broken arm in the Wolves’ final football game of the season. With the injury he decided to stop playing football and concentrate on track, and transferred to State College for his final three years.
He found plenty of success with the Little Lions, including a personal-best 300 hurdles time of 38.79 seconds, which was just 0.06 off the program record. At the state indoor championships, he joined Sean Adams, Bennett Norton and Henry Ballard for a 7:52.50 clocking to the 3,200-meter relay, finishing better than three seconds ahead of second-place Central Bucks South. Their time was the sixth-best indoor result in the nation this past school year according to Milesplit.com.
At the 2019 PIAA outdoor meet, he was part of an eighth-place finish in the 4x800 relay, then returned later that day for the hurdles final. He had run 39.18 in the preliminaries.
After his stumble on the first hurdle, he got up to run a 54.04 – 14.25 seconds behind the seventh-place finisher. Before the event, State College and Coatesville were tied in the team standings at 40-40, and if DeCarmine had not resumed the race the score would have remained tied. As it turned out, the Little Lions did get six more points with Conrad Moore’s third-place finish in the high jump to finish at 47 points, but they could not assume Moore would earn any points.
DeCarmine’s accomplishments garnered interest from a number of Division I programs, including Penn State, Pitt, Duquesne and Central Michigan. He settled on the latter program last fall, building a strong rapport with a few future teammates and assistant coach Michael Schober, and had partial athletic and academic scholarships waiting.
The tumbling dominoes of DeCarmine’s future began with the shutdown of the nation with the COVID-19 pandemic. All those hopes for more state medals, broken records and the joys of the final months of high school disappeared, but DeCarmine remained optimistic.
“I’m not going to let one year that I can’t control define me or the stuff my team and I accomplished,” he said. “We’ve just got to keep pushing forward. It’s bigger than high school. I’m just looking forward and keeping optimistic about all that.”
On the evening of May 18, he had what he thought was a routine phone conversation with Schober, and the pair discussed the plans for the summer and fall and eagerly looked forward to the coming indoor and outdoor seasons. The next morning, however, he was told to take part in a team conference call, for which DeCarmine thought was odd but not concerning. Then a text from a current Chippewa athlete about the call raised a red flag.
The team, and DeCarmine, were then informed by Athletic Director Michael Alford the program was going to be eliminated because of budget cuts resulting from the pandemic. Scholarship money and other commitments would be honored by the school, including for incoming recruits, but DeCarmine said, “I wanted to run.
“I definitely was upset, angry, I didn’t know why this happened,” DeCarmine said. “If the present being lost wasn’t enough, this takes away the future.”
He also admits to wondering if a break would ever be going his way during the spring’s ordeal.
“I had those thoughts and it was tiring,” he said. “But I realized everything does happen for a reason, I guess it’s just God’s plan. You just have to take everything how it comes.”
Much like when he was face-down on the track at PIAAs, DeCarmine didn’t wallow in misery for long. He quickly contacted coaches for some of other programs he had been considering earlier, plus Indiana, figuring Power 5 schools were less likely to ax their track teams. He also got plenty of help from the State College Athletic Department staff and Little Lion alumni.
In just over two weeks, his revised future was at Pitt with a partial athletic scholarship.
“He appeared to be the kind of blue-collar kid that we like to recruit,” Panthers coach Alonzo Webb said, “but we won’t really know until he gets here in the fall and goes through the fire but he appears to be a tough kid, a resilient kid, and that’s pretty intriguing.”
The future Panther has the potential to be running in the open 400-800 races as well as the 400 hurdles.
As DeCarmine discussed his bumpy journey, many of those close to him taking part in the conference call showed their appreciation for his perseverance.
“When there are tough times in life,” Gilkes said, “you get to see what people are made of, you get to see what you are made of, what your community is made of, what your institution is made of, and I couldn’t be prouder.”
“You personified what positive grit is,” said State College assistant athletic director Loren Crispell, adding he will be telling future State College students about this ordeal, and he also will make sure his own 7-year-old son knows and understands the message.
DeCarmine says he has learned plenty from the experience.
“You have to be grateful for everything,” he said. “Once you lose some of your favorite things in life like track or, it turns out to be school, you start to realize how thankful you are that you have those things, and with Pitt coming I’m super-thankful for that opportunity too. I’m just thankful for the whole experience, the good and the bad. I would not change anything with Central Michigan.”