Swiftly, effortlessly Sera Mazza gallops down the track or through the woods.
It figures horses would be her biggest inspiration.
Horses make the sophomore from St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy who she is in so many ways.
They excite her, they ground her and they distract her.
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Thanks to the equine motivation, she has won a state championship both individually and with her team, and with that success she was honored as the Centre Daily Times Female Inspiring Athlete of the Year.
Just two years into her high school life, she’s already put together an impressive career.
As a freshman, she finished second at the PIAA Class A Cross Country Championships, while leading St. Joseph’s to a surprising team title.
Last fall, she won the race individually and the Lady Wolves repeated as state champs.
She also has qualified for the PIAA Class A Cross Country Championships in each of her first two seasons, twice individually in the 1,600-meter run and also with the 3,200 relay team last spring.
“It’s just been a fun experience,” she said. “I’ve never had as many adventures as I’ve had in two years on this team. We’re such a family. I love going to practice every day.”
It’s not often that a high school kid will proudly say something like that.
Contributing a little to the fun, adventurous feel of the practices is the lack of a track for St. Joseph’s program and the improvising they have to do to train. Sometimes they run the half-mile oval in front of the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg. Other times they trot on trails around Boalsburg. A few weeks ago, the runs included scrambling over and through downed trees on the trails felled by thunderstorms. Another time, some team members chased a groundhog who proved to be a little too wily for the girls.
“We like to have our fun,” said Mazza, who was a swimmer for a few years and got some of her love of running from her mother, Sue, as the pair ran in a few 5K races together.
“I’m a runner, but I didn’t push her into it,” said Sue Mazza, who used to beat her daughter in those races, but not any more. “She found her thing.”
With the races she also got to know Jayson Jackson through the Nittany Valley Running Club. Jackson gave Mazza a few tips before he became St. Joseph’s coach.
“She’s very driven,” Jackson said. “That comes from her faith in God. She has a great family support system, and she also pushes herself.”
Mazza likes to challenge herself, running 30-40 miles a week, keeping a log of her workouts which she turns in weekly to Jackson. She also likes running with and against girls who are faster, which helps motivate her.
At the PIAA cross country meet in 2015, she covered the hilly, challenging 5-kilometer course near Hersheypark in 19 minutes, 37 seconds. She trailed only Marianne Abdalah, of Vincentian Academy, who was 47 seconds ahead. This past fall, Mazza chopped 20 seconds off her time to win — nine seconds ahead of Abdalah, a senior.
Her horses also motivate her. She and her family have two quarterhorses on their property outside Centre Hall. She has loved the animals since age 4, and like so many young girls begged her parents each birthday for a horse.
It was out of the question when they lived within the State College borough, but Sera and her sister Madison soon began to take riding lessons. Then the family found a piece of property with a small barn and pasture, and three years ago acquired the horses from the same family from which they received their riding lessons. The sisters care for and ride the creatures, and the change of scenery helps Sera.
“They require a lot of time and energy,” Mazza said. “But it’s really cool to have a bond with something that magnificent.”
Then there are the horses’ names — Aragorn and Thorin. They are named after characters from “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings” books by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Mazza is unsure how many times she has seen the movies — the family gathers occasionally for marathons with the films.
In that spirit, Jackson and the Lady Wolves have dubbed Mazza “Shadowfax” — the horse of Gandalf, one of the trilogy’s main characters.
Mazza, whose favorite character is Gimli the Dwarf, has been struggling to get quality time with her four-legged friends the past few weeks, however. Combining training and big meets with final exams in school, all she has been able to do is stop by each day to say hello. The horses have not been happy.
“I’m just waiting for summer so I can be out there with them every day,” she said. “I miss them.”
But the horses help make Mazza who she is. She loves running, horses, her school and her team, and she doesn’t let any one thing define her.
“(Running) is a big part (of her life) but it definitely doesn’t overwhelm her other activities,” said her father, Paul. “She keeps a good balance.”