WILMINGTON — Since 2011, the Wilmington High School girls and boys track programs have had a member of the Patrone Family. First it was Maria, then Chris and now Juliana, who is a senior. All three of them competed in the same event — the high jump, taking after their parents Joe and Tracy, who both have a long list of accolades in the event. Mom excelled at Burlington High and then Salem State University where she was a three-time All-American, and Dad still holds records at his Connecticut High School, at the University of Rhode Island, and also competed at the US Olympic Trials back in 1984.
A year after Chris graduated, Joe, who served almost 30 years as a track and cross-country coach between Somerville, Lawrence and Peabody, jumped ship and became a three-sport assistant captain for the same three programs, boys and girls, here at Wilmington High.
For the past four years he has coached — and watched Juliana go from a girl who couldn't make opening height of four feet as a freshman, to one of the league's best high jumpers.
He, just like Tracy, had big aspirations for Juliana this spring and are completely devastated that she will never have a chance to improve on her mark of five feet. The pandemic ended the spring sports season and ended the final season that Joe and Juliana spend together.
Both Joe and Tracy, as well as Juliana spoke at length about that feeling of disappointment, but also about being a 'high jump family'.
STARTING THE HIGH JUMP FAMILY TREE
Before Joe Patrone got to Woodstock Academy High School in Woodstock, Connecticut, he really wasn't involved in too many sports.
"I tried the high jump when I was in middle school because I was tall and thought I could do it," he said. "I went to a meet and no heighted at four feet and the coach said 'you might as well give it up because you won't be any good at it'. Then when I got to high school, I went out for the track team just for something to do, saw the high jump and thought I would try it again. It wasn't something that I was good at right away. It took me a while and I finally cleared 4-10 at the last meet of the season as a freshman in high school.
"I had a real good coach in high school, who was really understanding and he actually let me take the high jump (equipment) home with me and I would practice all summer in my front yard. The love for it grew right then and there."
He went on to break the school record at Woodstock, clearing 6-10.25 and was the Connecticut State Champion in 1980. Back then there wasn't a national high school meet, but if you had one of the top ten marks in the country, you were named an All-American and Patrone did with that leap.
From there he attended the University of Rhode Island. He broke both the indoor and outdoor school records which still hold today, 7-4.25 in indoors and 7-3.75 in outdoors, both coming his senior year of 1984. Only one athlete since has cleared 7-0 and that was Jack Kahrs of Scituate Mass who jumped 7-0.25 in March of 2015. His high school instructor was Joe Patrone.
Patrone graduated with a Physical Education Degree in 1984 (he would later receive his Masters Degree in Special Education and has spent the past 16 years as a teacher at Peabody High) but his competing days were far from over. He had qualified for the NCAA Championship Meet three times and did not place. The last one came during the outdoor season of 1984, held in Oregon. When that was completed, he took a flight to San Francisco and spent a week at the US National Championships before he and a friend drove to Los Angeles to compete in the United States Olympic Trials.
"I could have been over my head in awe of the entire situation," he said. "I had just finished my senior year of college and it was all new experiences for me. We warmed up over at (the University of Southern California) and then they took us over on buses to the coliseum for the trials and I was one of the last guys on the bus. There was one open seat and it just happened to be next to Dwight Stones, who was my idol all throughout high school (and was on the 1984 Olympic team). Mentally, that didn't play well with me. I ended up no heighting there at 7-1.50.
"It was just such an experience at the time, especially with my high school coach with me. At the time, I was sponsored by Nike and I remember standing in line waiting to pick up my Nike equipment and behind us was Carl Lewis to get his stuff. If you remember in 1984 that was the year he won four gold medals He was the biggest name in track-and-field at the time. We talked to him for a little while. Then we were sitting up in the stands after the high jump competition and we were sitting right in front of Wilt Chamberlain and we were talking to him for a while. It was just such a great experience."
After not qualifying for the Olympics, Patrone remained competitive and continued to strive. The following year, 1985, he set the meet record at the Dartmouth Relays, clearing 7-6, upsetting former American record holder Jim Howard of the Pacific Coast Track Club. That came a year after Patrone won the same meet clearing 7-0 as a college senior.
Then during the summer of 1985, Patrone cleared 7-6.50 at the Manchester Relays, his personal best mark of his athletic career.
Being 6-foot-5, he was asked if that made things easier or more difficult?
"When I think back, things kind of came easy to me," he said. "Sometimes being taller makes it a little easier because the bar doesn't seem as high. I was always well coordinated. The day I did 7-6.50, I came into the meet clearing 7-1 and then I did 7-3, 7-5 and then I had two misses in my first two attempts at 7-6 and I just said to myself 'I'm going to go for this'. I still remember being over the bar and saying to myself 'I still haven't hit it yet' and I pulled my feet over and landed in the pit. Somebody took a picture of it and I cleared it by three or four inches. Then I had three good attempts at 7-8 and just missed."
SETTING THE STAGE
Joe and Tracy have four children, Maria, Chris, Juliana and Sean. Maria competed in track-and-field at WHS, in the high jump, while she also did the hurdles and javelin. She graduated in 2014, and since went on to four years and graduated from Bridgewater State University with a Physics Degree. She resides in Pepperell, Mass and is weighing her Grad School options.
At the time that she was jumping at WHS, her father was still coaching at Peabody High.
"Maria was a 4-8 jumper in high school," he said. "I went to as many meets as I could. The thing that impressed me the most about her was she would always help out all of the other kids. At the time it was a different coaching staff and I don't think there were too many coaches who knew alot about the high jump. Maria knew stuff from me and she would really help out a lot of the younger kids. She was kind of coaching the high jumpers herself."
Those days of coaching the younger freshmen and sophomore jumpers actually started way before high school.
"I remember when I was coaching at Lawrence (in the early 2000s), Maria was real little and her coming up to a practice and it was so funny seeing her coaching the triple jumpers," said her dad with a laugh.
Chris is two years younger than Maria.
"Chris started off slow jumping in the JV meets," said Joe. "At that time, I wasn't coaching in Wilmington and was coaching at Peabody. I wish I had made the move sooner so I would have had the chance to work with him. I still see the potential in him. He did 5-9 in high school. Now he's off in college at UMass-Lowell as a computer engineering major and he is so busy with his academics, he can't train or anything, but whether it's at coming to our practices or competing in the Bay State Games each summer, he has jumped 5-11 or 6-0.
"I wasn't with him when he was in high school, but when I had the chance to see him compete and I saw him struggle from clearing 5-0 and 5-2, to the end of his senior season, he was consistently clearing 5-8 and 5-9 and just missed clearing 5-10."
Juliana is the third child and will graduate here in the next few weeks. She said she vividly remembers attending her older siblings 'long track meets'.
"It was kind of tough, not going to lie because the meets were so long, but I absolutely loved watching Chris and Maria jump," said Juliana. "It was just so beautiful to watch them jump. I especially remember Chris because I was older and he kept getting up to these bigger heights because boys they are obviously going to jump higher. I just loved watching them jump."
She said now that she is older and has followed the family tradition of competing in the high jump, it has helped bring them closer together.
"We are all really close as siblings, but having the high jump kind of connects us," she said. "It's something that we can all talk about and something that we all have in common. I force my older siblings to come to one of my meets for that season and they do, but it's something that we all enjoy and it connects us."
The youngest child is Sean and he is completing his year as an eighth grader and will go to WHS in the fall. He has participated in track camps over the years, has done the high jump, but track is not his No. 1 sport.
"He's big into hockey," said Joe. "He's on the in-town team here and he just really loves hockey. We'll see what he wants to do once he gets into high school."
TRY, TRY, TRY, TRY AGAIN
Before she came to WHS, Juliana had never competed in sports, except one season of soccer during her youth days. She was a dancer and has been involved with music in various ways throughout her entire life. She then decided she would go out for the indoor track team.
"My freshman year I really couldn't make opening height (of 4-2)," she said. "It was a new event but I also hadn't been doing any other sports before that. A lot of the other kids do other sports in middle school and elementary school, but that was really the first time that I had competed in a sport and working out everyday."
Certainly not being able to clear the opening height for several months was frustrating. But she never gave up.
"The last meet of my freshman indoor season, I was on the JV team because I still couldn't make the opening height for varsity, and my two brothers and my mom all came and I went from jumping 4-0 to 4-4 that day and since I haven't missed either 4-2 or 4-4. That was a big meet for me and everything just clicked."
It did click and she stayed with the track program, and would have earned completed her eighth season this spring. During the outdoor season of her freshman year, she was able to clear 4-6 and a year later as a sophomore, she cleared 5-0.
"I had cleared 4-6 going into that meet against Stoneham and then on my first attempt, I cleared 5-0," she said. "I was just so exciting and at the same meet, my best friend (and fellow senior teammate) Hannah (LaVita) also cleared five feet for the first time so it was a huge day for both of us. I ended up coming in first place overall for the meet and that was just such a big confidence booster for me."
That confidence though went down a bit during the middle of her sophomore season and lasted really until the start of this past winter season.
"My sophomore year during the freshmen/sophomore meet, I was doing a practice jump and I landed on my right knee the wrong way and I twisted it or something," she said. "It just kept popping the rest of the meet. I still ended up jumping but I had to sit for a bit. I ended up breaking a bit of my cartilage off my knee. I was out for the rest of the season and that really stunk because it was the first time I had jumped five feet in the spring so I couldn't compete at the league or state meets.
"I had to take the entire summer off and it really continued through my entire junior year. I still have to be weary of it and it was still coming back a bit this senior year, so I was just very disappointed with the spring season being cancelled."
She worked extremely hard to get back fully healthy. She joined the cross-country team this past fall, spending more time with her father who is a volunteer assistant coach for Brian Schell.
"This was her senior year and she worked really hard," said Joe. "She did cross-country back in the fall and we did all kinds of drills to get her stronger, faster and to get her ready for the (two track seasons). She had a very good winter season and we were hoping it would continue into the spring season. Most of last spring she had jumped higher than she had during the winter season, so we were looking forward to a big senior season. That was really tough. We are saddened that she had to miss her senior outdoor season."
During this past indoor season, Juliana cleared 5-0 six times, was a league all-star, in dual meets she finished second to LaVita twice and once to Wakefield's Olivia Fetherston, while beating her two other times.
LaVita has not only been Juliana's best friend outside of track, but the two have been close on the track, always pushing each other in the high jump. LaVita has earned a couple of trips to the All-State Meet and just last week officially signed her National Letter of Intent to continue jumping at Springfield College.
"I love watching Hannah jump," said Juliana. "She is just so powerful when she gets off the ground. Even when I was injured, I made sure I still came to the meets. I remember we drove like two hours to the All-State Meet just so I could watch her compete. I just absolutely love watching her jump and how she just soars over the bar. She's going to get a lot of higher heights (at Springfield College)."
Both Juliana and LaVita pushed each other to higher marks, finishing in a tie for second place in the Middlesex League Championship Meet to both earn All-Star honors before going on to the Class C Meet, again clearing 5-0 and didn't advance to the All-States due to misses.
"Juliana has come a long way," said Joe. "Her freshman indoor season, the opening height (for high jump) during the dual meets was 4-2 and she was unable to clear that and now moving along to this season, she was one of the league's top high jumpers in both divisions. She was a Middlesex League All-Star for our division. Just leaps and bounds. She went from not being able to clear 4-2 to being able to clear 4-10 and also clearly 5-0 on a pretty consistent basis. Part of it was getting stronger and her form got better and the technique that she worked on got better. I still think that she has room to grow and I still think that she can jump higher."
HEY, I WANT TO TRY THAT
Therese "Tracy" Reagan-Patrone grew up in Burlington and graduated from BHS in 1984. She elected to go out for the track team and originally as a middle-distance runner.
"One day in high school I was on the track team and I saw some kids jumping when I was running the half mile," she said. "I thought that I should try that out. I did and I was good and I ended up having a lot of fun with it. I continued to do it and ended up jumping in college and just had a great time of doing it."
She went on to Salem State and became a three-time Division 3 All-American, who was inducted into the school's Athletic Hall of Fame in 1993, just five years after graduating. She twice won National and New England Championship titles, and was also an Academic All-American as a senior. She was named to the ECAC All-Conference teams all four years, and was named an Eastern Track Magazine All-Star in both 1987 and '88. She became the first person at Salem State to win both the Student-Athlete Award and the Presidents Cup Award.
In the high jump, she did not lose to a Division 3 opponent during her junior year. Her highest marks at Salem included clearing 5-9 at a PAC Meet and then she cleared 5-8.50 at the NCAA National Meet in 1988.
"I had a very short approach," she said. "I took only seven steps and I came from the right side. I would just run quickly and jump and just try to get over the bar. I was told that I was a power jumper."
She graduated with a BS in Office Administration and went on to take various Business/Accounting/Finance classes at Bentley College. She ended up joining the Waltham Track Club after her college days had ended and that's where she met Joe. She stopped competing due to nagging shin splint injuries and after that she married Joe and they started their family.
"I love going to the meets and watching my kids compete," she said. "I try to make all of them and go as much as I can whether it's hockey for Sean or the track meets for the other three kids. I love to watch them. I loved watching Julia do the high jump and get better. She was doing so well this indoor season. I made a few of her meets and it was certainly exciting to watch. I'm looking forward to the future for her and if she competes, I'll be there to watch her. It's just so much fun."
Joe was working at Marathon Sports at the time when he became friendly with Charlie O'Rourke, who was the head girls' track coach at Somerville High School. O'Rourke knew about Joe's high jumping days and asked him to come down to a practice and work with one his athletes. Joe did and the rest is history.
"After that first day, I was leaving out the door and he said 'I'll see you tomorrow' and I just kept going back and that was my introduction to coaching," said Joe.
He started as a volunteer coach in the 1980s worked with a sprinter who became a three-time state champion. From there he became the head coach for all three seasons, boys and girls cross-country and winter and spring track at Lawrence High School for ten years, which included being named the Lawrence Eagle Tribune's Indoor Coach of the Year during the 2002-03 season. He left Lawrence and became the boys track coach at Peabody High School for 12 years and serving as an assistant on the girls team under Joe Rocha, who Patrone calls "one of the best distance coaches in the state."
During his final few seasons at Peabody, while Maria and Chris were at WHS, Mike Kinney started to plant a seed with Patrone, hoping he would change gears and come over to coach the Wildcats' teams.
"I just decided to make the transition and come over to Wilmington," Patrone said, noting that he just completed his fourth year. "Mike Kinney had put the bug in my ear and was trying to get me over here and I finally decided to do it and I'm just so glad that I did. I just wish that I had done it sooner. I love coaching here in Wilmington."
Patrone is a volunteer coach with Schell in cross-country and then works with both Schell and Kinney in the indoor and outdoor seasons in a variety of roles, but in particular with the high jumpers. Patrone said it's been a match made in heaven.
"Kinney is unbelievable. The kids all respect him, they all love him and the reception that he gets when we walks into a room from the boys track team is unbelievable. He is just so great to work with. He knows all of the different events. He was primarily a thrower when he competed and he does an excellent job with the javelin throwers. As long as he has been here, Wilmington has always had excellent javelin throwers, but he also works with the distance kids. Schell will work with the boys distance guys in the fall with cross-country, and then Kinney takes over in the winter and the spring and you can see the continuation of a kid like Greg Adamek and Ben Packer and how they just continue to improve throughout the year.
"Schell is awesome, too. I work with him as a volunteer assistant for the cross-country team and he just does a great job of developing those runners. He takes a kid and just gets the best out of them without killing them. I have seen some high school coaches that will run a kid so hard in high school and they end up not having much of a college career because of that. But with Schell, he's really good about getting a lot of out these athletes in high school so they can continue to improve and develop in college.
"I see a kid like Greg Adamek and I think he can be an incredible college runner. Seeing the growth of not just Greg but all the kids who were freshmen when I started coaching and now they are seniors and their growth has just been unbelievable."
Besides his days as a head coach and now assistant, Patrone has spent a lot of time as a private coach working with many state champions in Massachusetts and surrounding states. Several yeas ago, he worked with Moira Cronin of Andover and Ellen DiPietro of Marshfield, who both won the New Balance High School National Meets.
"I'm a technique guy going back to my own jumping days," he said. "I have always said that God has blessed me with an eye to watch a kid high jumping and be able to tell them what they did right and what they did wrong. Then with the advent of technology, with some video, I can immediately watch the jump, control the speed of it and be able to pick out the things that are working for the jumper and the things that are not working. That's where I come from, technique wise as a high school coach to be able to show and teach these kids how to high jump.
"We have had some pretty good kids here at Wilmington besides Juliana, Hannah and Evelyn (Miller-Nuzzo) and on the boys side, kids like Colin Rooney and Sam Juergens had been jumping well. We also had a freshman Kayla Flynn who was built like a high jumper and she ended up jumping 4-8 this past winter season."
Schell was by himself for most of his early coaching days at WHS and now with Patrone by his side, he said it's a win-win situation for everyone — especially the kids.
"Coach Patrone is an all-around great individual and has been a savior having him assistant coach with us," said Schell. "He is very knowledgeable of the sport especially the jumping events. I have learned a lot from him in the short time he has been here. The best part of it all is getting to coach with someone whose passion for the sport is like myself as it helps to communicate and be on the same level when needed.
"He has been volunteering his time during the cross-country season and it has been great having him around. He has been a huge help working with the group that doesn't usually go on the road runs and stays back on the track. Having him has helped me allow the cross-country season open to everyone and not just distance runners, allowing them to stay in shape for the track season
"He has made a huge impact not just on myself but the teams as well. When the girls first won the league we had no one who could clear opening height in high jump. Through his expertise, work ethic and being there for the kids, we have had many high jump relay teams medaling at relays to individuals becoming league all-stars and all-state qualifiers."
THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY
This spring season would have marked the last one that Joe and Juliana would have been together as coach-athlete. It was also supposed to be Juliana's best season, before the National Honor Society member (and Top-20 in her academic class) goes off to Bridgewater State University to major in mathematics and a minor in music, all with the hopes of competing on the track-and-field teams. However, the pandemic ended all her final high school season as well as the normal Senior Activities.
"It's definitely disappointing," she said. "I felt like things were really starting to click (with track). I was finally able to do cross-country in the fall and that was a lot to get me back into shape for the winter season because I was coming off an injury that lasted a while. This winter season, everything was clicking and I was a lot more consistent so I was really looking forward to the spring season."
Juliana, Hannah and Miller-Nuzzo won't have a chance to push each other, thrive for a state relay title or just share some laughs with each other at practice and all of that is sad and tough to go through as a senior during the country's state. However, looking back at her career, is the complete opposite.
"While she may be shy at first, Juliana is an overall great kid and a solid student-athlete. She excels both in the classroom and in track-and-field and she simply defines that of a student-athlete,” said Schell. “I remember her freshmen year all winter season not being able to clear opening height till she managed to get it at her last meet. From then on, watching her progression throughout her high school career was awesome. She was part of the strong high jump relay team, reaching that five-feet height, tied for second place in the league with teammate Hannah and a Middlesex League all-star.
“She became a captain senior year after working on some mental toughness. She would eventually shrug off bad attempts and keep attacking the next one. She built up to consistently clearing five-feet and as I always say consistency is a great attribute to have. During her time at WHS, Julia has been a great student-athlete, who has a passion for the sport. She is an all-around great individual, who definitely shows great leadership.”
While she has fond memories competing for Coach Schell, being with her best friend Hannah and the rest of her teammates, Juliana said she will always remember each day she spent on the track with her father.
"It was definitely nice having him there," she said. "He's just so easy and comfortable to talk to. We'll do workouts together and it's just really nice having him there. He's a real good coach. He's always supporting me, even the meets I don't do well. He'll tell me what we will work on and say that 'we'll get better'. He has definitely been a big supporter for me."