By Kyle LoJacono
While Land O’ Lakes High has two cross country teams, it is hard to tell from the way the boys and girls squads train and get along.
“They train together and everyone really gets along,” said Kris Keppel, who coaches both Gators squads. “They’re like brothers and sisters who all support each other. It helps them get better and also creates a nice rivalry too.”
Keppel has coached the boys team the last 17 years and the girls the last 12 seasons. He also coaches boys track and field.
Both of Keppel’s teams reached the state meet the last two seasons. The top runner on the boys team is senior four-year runner Hendrix Lafontant.
“He’s definitely our overall best runner,” Keppel said of Lafontant. “He’s also in the (International Baccalaureate) curriculum, so he can handle the stress of being a leader on our team and being a good student.”
Lafontant wants to get back to states, but also wants to make his teammates better in his last campaign.
“I’m just going to try and push myself and my teammates as hard as I can,” Lafontant said. “I’m going to make myself a goal for them. I want the other runners on the team to be able to beat me by the end of the season. Just because I’m the fastest right now doesn’t mean they can’t catch me. I want them to strive to pass me.”
Lafontant’s person best time in the 5K (five kilometers) is 16 minutes and 52 seconds.
“I think our team will do very well,” Lafontant said. “We have a few freshmen like Travis (Nichols) and Tyler Stahl who are very good runners and I see a lot of potential in them.”
Keppel said that Nichols is the most improved runner from the summer. He has improved his personal best time from 20:02 to 18:06 in a six-week time span. He moved to Land O’ Lakes from Ohio before starting high school and his teammates have helped him get faster.
“They all help push me to do as good as I can,” Nichols said. “Tyler Stahl, the other freshman, is always right next to me and always helps.
“It’s also great to get to practice with the girls team because it’s more teammates to push you and make you better,” Nichols continued.
The No. 1 runner for the boys team is set, but there is a lot of competition on the girls side. Senior Ashley Ford starts the year as the fastest, but Keppel said senior Alea Basulto and junior Alyssa Lonsway are not far behind.
“It definitely keeps us all motivated because we are all a team and want to do well,” Ford said. “We all push each other to do better to help the team by giving it our max and the best runner really changes every time.”
Ford is also somewhat new to the Gators team having moved to Land O’ Lakes from Pennsylvania last year. Her personal best time is 21:39 in a competition.
“I had to get used to the heat here, so now that I am, I’m hoping to have a breakout year,” Ford said. “Part of that is we have a great coach. It’s not just that he knows how to make us faster, but he has different methods to make it fun and challenging at the same time.”
One of those methods is what Keppel calls the magic marker race. Orange cones are spread out on the football field each with a different color magic marker under it. The runners are broken into two teams and each runner on the team has to mark a card with the right color in the correct order.
“It builds speed, but also communication and strategy,” Keppel said. “They should send the fastest runner to the farthest cone and let the slower runners mark their cards first because we only give them one color at a time. They have to all run back before we give them the next one.”
Games like that help break up the long hours of pounding the pavement that have gotten Gators teams to state meets consistently during Keppel’s time as coach. All the younger runners want to get back to states to send the seniors out as winners.
“I just don’t want to disappoint them,” Nichols said. “They’ve worked hard to get to states and I want to make sure I can help them get back there.”
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