Middletown North grad will run for Felician University

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PHOTO COURTESY OF MARY KINCH
Middletown High School North boys cross-country runner Michael Puzo competes in a race this past season. Puzo will continue to run at the collegiate level for Felician University.

When Michael Puzo attended his first practice for the Middletown North High School cross-country team four years ago, he did not know what to expect.

His mom, Michele, had signed him up to run for the squad and encouraged him to give the sport a chance.

Now, having graduated from high school, Puzo is set to run for the Felician University, Rutherford, cross-country team following an outstanding career at Middletown North.

“It’s a great honor,” Puzo said of the opportunity to compete at the college level. “It was something I had been thinking about pursuing. I got in contact with the Felician coach (Elson Smajlaj) and things progressed from there. I’m really excited for this opportunity.”

Puzo is one of 10 runners from the Middletown North boys and girls cross-country programs who are expected to compete in college in 2020-21.

During his career at Middletown North, Puzo helped the Lions’ cross-country program continue to achieve success and he built strong relationships with his teammates and coaches that he said he will always remember.

During his junior campaign, Puzo helped Middletown North win the Shore Conference B North Division championship by placing ninth in the division meet with a time of 17:45.13 on a 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) course.

The following month at Greystone Central Park in Morris Plains during the NJSIAA North 2, Group 3 meet, Puzo ran his best race. He pushed himself toward the top of the pack from the start of the race and finished 12th in 16:44.91.

Puzo’s effort helped to motivate his teammates as classmates Sean Mahoney and Kevin Carragher placed 11th and 13th, respectively, in the state competition. The trio helped Middletown North finish second in the team standings.

“As a team, we all worked well together,” Puzo said. “The entire team trained together and pushed each other to get better.”

Later during the 2018-19 school year when he was competing for the spring track and field team, Puzo broke 10 minutes in the 3,200-meter run at the Shore Conference Championships and placed 11th.

During the winter, Puzo could be found on the mat working hard for the wrestling team. He wrestled at 138, 145 and 152 pounds in three years on the squad.

“I was close to a lot of the guys on the wrestling team and it was a fun experience,” Puzo said. “We all motivated each other on the mat. I really enjoyed both sports.”

Puzo acknowledges it was a challenge transitioning from running cross-country to wrestling, but he said the two sports were connected in more ways than people might think because running cross country helped him with his conditioning and kept him at his wrestling weight.

He said wrestling helped him discover new athletic abilities that gave him more confidence when he competed in a race or in a wrestling match.

Puzo’s senior campaign proved to be a challenge. He sustained an injury during the summer of 2019 while he was training and spent the cross country season trying to work himself back into competitive shape.

Although he was unable to perform to his highest ability, Puzo kept his mindset on doing what he could to help the team succeed in any way.

Puzo gutted out a tough race to help Middletown North outduel Chatham High School and finish fourth as a team at the state sectional meet.

“It shows the type of character he has,” Middletown North Coach Brock Silvestri said. “Even when he was hurting, he wanted to give it his all for his teammates. He was not at his best, but he did what he could to help the team win and have success.”

Silvestri said he believes Puzo can accomplish big things at Felician. He said he enjoyed coaching Puzo and the other seniors for four years.

Smajlaj, the Felician coach, said he believes Puzo can continue to improve from what he showed as a junior and is excited to work with him.

Puzo said he feels fine now and is running like he was during his junior year as he trains to compete at the collegiate level.

Having the opportunity to run for Felician means a lot to Puzo, who said he wants to prove to Smajlaj and the program that they made the right decision in giving him a chance to compete for the squad.

Upon seeing his high school career conclude by signing a national letter of intent to compete at the NCAA Division II level, Puzo is proud of what he was able to accomplish at Middletown North.

He credits it to the support he has received from his family, from Robert Gallitelli, who was his coach in middle school, and all of the Middletown North coaches; and to his teammates who were with him every step of the way.

“I made a lot of great memories in high school,” Puzo said. “Middletown North has a great cross-country program. I had great coaching that helped me have success and has given me the opportunity to run at the next level.”