| 02 Mar 2015 | 04:27

    ali gemma's journey from high school softball player to collegiate track star provides the proof for that old adage: expect the unexpected. gemma, a senior at oberlin college in ohio and a native upper east sider, certainly failed to foresee all her recent success.

    at the north coast athletic conference championships in early march, gemma led her indoor track-and-field team to its first title ever by winning the long jump (15 feet, six inches) and the 4x200-meter relay and placing second in the 4x400 relay, seventh in the 200 and eighth in the 55.

    "everyone did really well, and we weren't really expecting to do so well," gemma said. "but we trained so hard that we shouldn't have underestimated ourselves. some of it was confidence, which is a really big part of doing well. i knew i had the ability to do this well, but sometimes you get nervous and start doubting yourself. this year, especially with our preseason training, i definitely worked really hard. even by the first meet, i felt an improvement."

    gemma didn't start out as a runner or jumper. originally a volleyball and softball player at the dalton school, she only adopted track to stay active between seasons. she didn't even join the outdoor track team until her junior year.

    "i really enjoyed running and competing," she said. "i had success during my indoor season, so i figured i might as well do outdoor track, and i haven't looked back since. i had always been active, but i didn't realize that i would be able to compete in college until i was a senior. at first it was intimidating, but once you have some meets under your belt, it's really a lot of fun."

    now a team captain, gemma has set personal bests in the long jump, 500 and 200 this season, showing how some tough summer training can pay off. her best leap is an impressive 16 feet, four and a half inches. at the moment, she is recovering from a stress fracture in her shin but expects to return to the outdoor season as strong as ever.

    as for the future, gemma, a religion and english major, is thinking of applying to graduate school to study public health. but who knows? the unexpected has a way of surprising everyone.

    gemma wasn't the only local athlete excelling at the college level this winter season. there were dozens of other competitors, including many in track.

    najua ward (beacon) of city college, for example, was named a cuny athletic conference all-star and athlete of the week twice. at the conference championships, he won the 400 in 50.39 seconds, finished second in the 200 and also helped the 4x400 team claim first. his teammates included jabreel sabir (environmental studies), who placed eighth in the 5,000 at the same meet, and michael buissereth (brandeis). in the 1,500, sabir was two spots behind former high school colleague shane king of lehman college. issa tall (martin luther king jr.) also ran for lehman, finishing 11th in the 400 and helping his team win the cuny title. hamilton college's tidelco ductan, another martin luther king jr. graduate, won the triple jump at the new york state collegiate track conference championships with a mark of 14.6 meters.

    in the ivy league, four locals competed for harvard. brian hill (regis) placed 11th in the 4x800 at the east coast athletic conference championships and eighth in both the 800 and 4x800 at the heptagonal championships. dylan trotzuk and jon meminger (both collegiate grads) ran for the crimson as well, with the latter finishing fourth in the 4x400 relay at the heptagonal meet. elizabeth heller (brearley) also competed for harvard. two other former collegiate track stars, itse begho and peter vizcarrondo, ran at yale, while hill's regis teammate brian li-a-ping was named second team all-ivy in the 4x400 at princeton. the university of pennsylvania's jeff weinstein (dalton) finished sixth in the mile at the virginia duals in under 4:18. other collegiate alumni included dwayne alexis at dartmouth, joe myrie at the university of pennsylvania and chris williams at villanova. williams was fifth in the big east in the 1,000, finishing with a time of less than 2:24. he also helped the 4x800 team win at the conference meet.

    brearley's recent strong track teams have produced several current college runners. hannah schultz is competing for bates, fiona shaw for haverford and christina argueta for bowdoin. argueta finished 10th in the 5,000 at the division 3 new england championships. teammate alexa staley (chapin) was 17th in the 55 hurdles at the same meet, where amherst's jenny mancino (dalton) placed 15th in the high jump. she also made her conference's all-academic team.

    thomas conroy (regis) had an excellent sophomore season at the college of new jersey. he won the weight throw at the new jersey athletic conference championships with a toss of 15.66 meters and was named to the all-conference team.

    other locals currently running in college include jessie katz (laguardia) at smith, treeva royes (laguardia) at syracuse, sam ghitelman (hunter) at oberlin and kirsten brown (hunter) at tufts.