MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — Since he arrived in Morgantown, Neal Brown has stamped himself as a solid recruiter for his West Virginia football team and the last few days he’s done nothing but put a gold gild on that reputation by landing 2022 commitments from a pair of four-star recruits at cornerback and running back, to go with an earlier four-star commitment from a four-star quarterback for 2023.
But it comes to recruiting, he might have to take a back seat to women’s cross country and track coach Sean Cleary, who pulled off a recruiting coup that no other Mountaineer coach has ever been able to do, landing a prospect who probably would have wound up at MIT, as in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The prospect is Zara Zervos of John Marshall, who won’t even have to use up an athletic scholarship for she has taken down all the academic scholarships available while also being named a Presidential Scholar in Career and Technical Education. That, along with a 4.57 GPA, screams out that she may have a four-time All-State choice in high school, but that she was an All-American scholar as well.
“That was so exciting for me, especially since I got it in Career and Technical Education,” the incoming freshman said on Tuesday. “There’s only 20 of them in the United States. There’s like 100 Presidential Schools, but in Career and Technical Education there is only 20 and being part of something that is so select was really gratifying.”
Now the question rises as to how Cleary was able to land Zervos when she could have reached out to lifelong dream of being an engineer at NASA with an MIT degree, as well the question as to why she opted to come to West Virginia rather than head to MIT.
“It was just my connection with my family,” she explained. “MIT is over 10 hours away from here. I didn’t like the idea of being away from my family. I have a little sister who is six years younger than me and I wanted to watch her grow up. Being at WVU, that’s something I can do. I can come home for her games or her violin recitals.”
And the family ties to the school are strong, beginning with her uncle, Matthew Zervos, who once served as the Mountaineer mascot.
“My family has a long line at WVU and that meant a lot. I had my uncles go there, both my parents got master’s degrees there,” she said.
She felt it was just keeping it all in the family.
Of course, Cleary offered up his own take on it as he recruited her.
“She’s very practical,” he said. “She understood the development that will come with the ability to surround herself with national class runners and be able to obtain a great degree. It’s interesting, over the years how many elite level students have come to run at West Virginia. We now are able to point out that we have large numbers of doctors and dentists and veterinarians, a lot of the professions that are highly academic.
“We explained she’d be able to reach her life goals academically and maybe have a little more chance to excel in academics.”
The academic opportunities were there, as well as the atmosphere she was seeking.
“He did a great job of showing me what a family the team is and how supportive they were of each other,” she said. “That’s definitely the type of culture I want to be part of, a team thar is there for each other, supports each other and works together. He also told me that the team has amazing grades and that track never gets in the way of school
“That was a big part of it. That meant a lot.”
And what Cleary likes so much about her is that she has not yet come close to tapping her inate ability for cross country and track because she was so diversified athletically through high school.
To begin with, Zervos understood that athletics were simply part of her life that her future lies in the academics she will take.
Asked how in high school, if she had an important test and an important track meet the next day, she handled the situation, she offered up an answer with wisdom far beyond her years.
“To me, academics always do come first,” she said. “That’s what my future is going to be based around. After college, competitive athletics will be over for me. Academics will be my future, really. It’s always the test first or the school project is first.”
In high school she ran, she swam, she played soccer ... and exceled at all of it, but now will have to concentrate solely on her running and that should allow her to make strides to fulfilling her athletic potential.
“She won’t be swimming; she won’t be playing soccer. She won’t be doing some of these things that developed her athletic talents, but concentrating on running alone is her hidden gem,” Cleary said. “I would expect to her move through the ranks quite quickly, providing she still loves the sport.”
“At John Marshall in the fall, I did both cross country and soccer, so I didn’t put as much time into cross country as the people around the state who were doing only that one sport,” she said. “Now, when I get into the fall and I’m only practicing that every day, I will see a lot of growth.
“The same can be said for track. During the winter, I swam while other athletes were with the Flyers and training a lot. I will now be focusing my time on this. Track has always been my favorite sport so that was an easy decision because it was the one I loved and enjoyed the most.”
The West Virginia Flyers were a club that Cleary helped start a number of years ago and almost all the best runners in the state have been there except for Zervos, who was playing those other sports.
“If you can break into that elite category and go further without going at it as a runner 12 months out of the year, I think you have something very special,” Cleary continued. “When Zara was young, she showed exceptional speed in the 400 for a middle-distance runner. She has the kind of speed that Karly Hamric and Keri Bland and Kaylyn Christopher had.
“She has that same 400-meter speed. The only thing missing is she doesn’t have that endurance. When Keri and a few of those others came into the program and we built endurance around that natural speed, they blossomed into national class distance runners. I don’t want to put pressure on Zara to expect her at that level, there’s something inside me that tells me that could also come true with her.”
If it does, she’ll have something to talk about the rest of her life, as part of a resume that also includes that Presidential Scholar honor and a 4.57 GPA.
“I wouldn’t say the 4.57 GPA was hard, but it was a lot of hard work. I had to put in the work to get that,” she said. “There were a lot of classes I took that weren’t challenging like that. I took violin all four years because it was something I love to play and I wanted to be in the orchestra.
“That’s a class where you didn’t have these tests you had to study for, but I needed to practice. I took engineering all four years, which wasn’t super test heavy, but was more critical thinking and problem solving. I am really proud of my GPA, but while I was there, I didn’t focus on let’s get my GPA as high as I possibly can. I didn’t focus on what classes will help in college and in the future, and what courses I would enjoy.”