APTOS — Aptos High junior Marea Zlatunich, one of the top distance runners in the Central Coast Section, has been shut down for the rest of the season and will not compete at Saturday’s Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League Track and Field Championships.
Zlatunich, a two-time CCS placer in the 1,600-meters, suffered a non-running injury to a ligament in her left leg during spring break and has not run for the Mariners since early April at the Stanford Invitational.
Zlatunich said she has met with two doctors already but neither have been able to give her a solid diagnosis as to what the injury is or what might have caused it, though she suspects either her surfing, horseback riding or rock scaling on a vacation to the Pinnacles National Park during spring break might be the culprit. She is set to meet with a specialist in Stanford next week to find out the extent of the injury.
Zlatunich, who in the fall was named the section’s Cross Country Runner of the Year and qualified for the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championships, said the fact that she won’t be able to vie for a league or CCS title this season is deflating.
“I really, really wanted to do big things this season but it just didn’t happen,” she said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “This was unexpected and it turned everything upside down.”
Zlatunich seemed to be rounding into form in the days before her injury. She had just run the mile in 4 minutes, 57.12 seconds at the Stanford Invitational on April 1, giving her far and away the fastest time in the 1,600 of any CCS runner when converted, according to Aptos distance coach Dan Gruber.
Gruber said he and Zlatunich thought the injury was just usual soreness but when she tried to warm up at the Arcadia Invitational it turned out to be more serious than they first anticipated.
Gruber said Zlatunich could very well have ran at Saturday’s SCCAL Championships and most likely qualified for the CCS meet despite the swelling and discomfort around the inside of her knee but he decided to err on the side of caution. He let her know on Monday that he did not submit her name for the league finals.
“Sure, I’m disappointed but it was far more disappointing for her,” Gruber said. “She wanted to show what she had this year. She wanted to make [the California Interscholastic Federation State Meet]. I know she has the world ahead of her — she’s going to do some amazing things in the future — but for her this is the end of the world.”
Added Gruber: “She’ll get through this. She’ll be fine.”
Zlatunich’s absence on Saturday will undoubtedly make the Santa Cruz High Cardinals the heavy favorites to four-peat as SCCAL champs. Aptos thoroughly beat Santa Cruz — winning 99-32 — in their league dual meet but the Cardinals did not showcase several of their top athletes, namely CIF State finalist Mari Friedman.
Aptos will try to make up the difference with its depth.
Zlatunich has finished runner-up in the 1,600 at the SCCAL Championships each of the last two seasons and fallen heartbreakingly close to qualifying for the CIF State Meet, too. As a freshman she missed the cut by two hundredths of a second and last season she finished two spots short from making the trip to Veterans Memorial Stadium in Clovis.
This season, however, Zlatunich was more focused than ever before. In cross country, she led the Mariners to their fifth straight SCCAL title, sixth consecutive CCS D-III crown and a third-place finish in the CIF D-III Championships a season after leading them to a state championship. At the CCS Championships, she ran the fastest time of the season on the 2.95-mile Crystal Springs Cross Country Course and captured the Division III individual title in the process.
Zlatunich said she’s trying to put this track season behind her and is already thinking about her senior year.
“Hopefully I can accomplish some big things then,” said Zlatunich, who has been to every practice and will be on hand at Saturday’s SCCAL Championships to cheer on her teammates. “I can’t wait for cross country. This is obviously going to put more pressure on my last track season but that’s OK. I’ll be ready for it.”