By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes boys cross country team may be one of the youngest squads in the area, but they are not lacking in race experience or confidence.
The Gators will be led by junior Dillon Oergel along with Travis Nichols, Tyler Stahl and Jake Poore, all sophomores. Oergel, Nichols and Stahl were all part of the 2010 Land O’ Lakes squad that placed 15th in the Class 3A state meet.
“It meant a lot getting to states last year because we had so many seniors,” Nichols said. “It was a great experience.”
Two of the biggest seniors from last year were Chris Dotson, who signed a cross country scholarship with Lee University in Cleveland, and Hendrix Lafontant, who came in third in districts in 16:29 and earned a spot on the All-Laker/All-Lutz News cross country team in 2010.
Despite the subtractions, the Gators do not feel like it is a rebuilding year.
“This year we’re hoping to get in the top-10, but it’s not going to be easy,” said Land O’ Lakes coach Kris Keppel. “What’s important is our three top sophomores really feed off each other. When you have that you can have a strong team. Not every year do you have that, but these three have really gelled together.”
Keppel said the team has the talent to be one of the top teams in the Tampa Bay area, especially because the younger runners have started taking on leadership roles.
“Tyler and I have been leading the runs, and that’s a lot different from what we did last year as freshmen,” said Nichols, whose personal record (PR) in a 5-kilometer race is 16:52. “We had all that senior leadership who pushed everyone to finish. Now we know we have to do some of those things because the seniors aren’t here anymore.”
Nichols said his goal is to get his time less than 16 minutes by the end of the year, and he has taken steps during the summer to help make it happen. He has given up fast food and replaced it with pasta and lean protein, while also keeping hydrated and focusing on stretching.
“I feel better on runs,” Nichols said. “It helps me be more productive.”
Stahl, whose PR is 17:25, has his own methods for slashing his times. He has run for 50 straight days and plans to run every day throughout the season.
Oergel, whose PR is 16:58, has not been able to do as much training during the summer as he would like. He has been suffering a small injury to his left knee that happened during the offseason because of too much running and weight training. While his conditioning is not where he would like it, he said he is almost completely healed and ready for the year.
“We have a couple injuries, but I think the prospects are still very, very good,” Keppel said.
Keppel is entering his 18th year as Land O’ Lakes’ coach. His Gators squads have qualified for states seven times, including the last three seasons.
The road toward a fourth-straight trip to states will not be easy for the Gators. They are in Class 3A-District 6 with Wiregrass Ranch. The Bulls won a district and regional championship last year, forcing Land O’ Lakes to live with runner-up finishes in both events.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Nichols said. “Wiregrass is in our district and were really good last year. I know all their runners and I think myself, Tyler and Jake are stacked right there with their guys, but it’s not going to be easy to get where we want.”
Wiregrass Ranch is coached by Chris Loth, one of Keppel’s former assistants.
“He started the program there, and we’ve always had that friendly rivalry,” Keppel said. “These guys know all of their runners by name. It’s not like we go and spray paint their house or anything, but we don’t want them to beat us. It just adds something more when we run against them.”
If they get to regionals, Land O’ Lakes will likely face perennial powerhouse Chamberlain as well as Steinbrenner, which finished as the 2A state runner-up in 2010.
“Wiregrass has been beating us for years and it would be great to finally beat them,” Stahl said. “We want to get first at districts and regionals and beat them at states. With Steinbrenner, they’re new and we haven’t faced them, but we’re pretty confident we can beat them. As long as we feel that way we should be able to.”