By Kyle LoJacono
The Wiregrass Ranch boys and girls cross country teams have experienced a strangely similar last 12 months.
Both won conference, district and regional championships and entered the Class 3A state meet with high expectations of finishing better than any other Bulls team in the school’s history. Both teams had, by their standards, disappointing finishes in the final race of year, with the boys taking 10th and the girls finishing 13th, giving both motivation to improve in 2011.
In addition, both programs lost four of their top-seven runners to graduation, creating a need for new leaders to step up. That similar road toward the 2011 season has created a common motto for the Bulls squads.
“Both of our teams’ shirts say ‘Prove It’ because on both sides, the boys and the girls, we lost some of our top runners,” said girls coach Don Howard. “My girls say they’re going to continue the tradition. Chris’ boys say the same thing. They’re out to prove it to themselves and everyone else. We use that target as our motivation to continue to do well. I tell the girls there are people training to beat you specifically, so you need to always work to improve.”
The girls lost Ariel Grey, Marissa Tomei, Kelsey Sturman and Taylor Hixson to graduation. The squad does return Nikita Shah, Chelse Davis and Elise Cedre, and Howard plans on using their experience to help get the team back to a championship level.
“Those three girls are going to be our leaders this year, but the key for us is are those other kids going to step up,” Howard said. “All three of those girls have it upon them to help pull the next bunch up. To run with them and practice and show them the things to do to get girls who have never run under 22 minutes to get their times down.”
Howard said Shah, a senior, is their No. 1 runner, but the junior never looks at it as if she is separate from her teammates.
“Cross country is a team effort and it’s fun to be on a team,” said Shah, whose personal record (PR) in a 5-kilometer race is 18:59. “I’m excited about this season. I think myself and a lot of the girls are ready to stay at the top. We lost some good runners, but I know our returning runners have been working very hard and have already improved their times. I think we can regain our titles we got last year.”
The boys lost Josh Reilly, Ryan Pulsifer, Ian Cassette and Logan Selzer to graduation, but coach Chris Loth said he has the right kids to help fill those holes.
“We have a good group of kids step up as leaders,” Loth said. “As far as talent, we have 38 kids on the team to choose from. There are available slots and everyone is motivated to fill them. They want to live up to the expectations that they’ve created. That’s the goal. Whether or not it happens we’ll have to see.”
One of the kids Loth will lean on for his times is senior Sam Hippely, whose PR in a 5K is 16:21.
“Losing four seniors from last year is going to be tough for us, but I think our Nos. 4-9 spots are really good and competitive,” Hippely said. “They’re all trying very hard and it pushes all of us to do better. It’ll be interesting to see where those spots go.”
The boys will also be led by junior Ermias Bireda, whose PR is 16:26. Bireda said he has been working to get his core stronger during the summer, along with regular running with the squad.
“I’ll do whatever I can to get better at running,” Bireda said. “I know that if you have a strong core you can go further at top speed.”
Loth has also changed his training regime based on what he learned in 2010.
“We had a disappointing day at states last year and I’ve adjusted a couple things because of that,” Loth said. “We started a little bit later in hopes that we won’t peak too early, which I think we did last year. Keep them fresh. I’m going to adjust things later in the year too.”
Both Bulls programs have become constants at the top of conference, district and regional meet leader boards during the last few years, making them a target for other programs to shoot for.
“We’re glad that other teams respect our program,” Loth said. “After realignment we’re in a more competitive district and region than we’ve ever been in — teams like Land O’ Lakes, Steinbrenner, Chamberlain and a couple other squads — so we’re going to have to push ourselves just to get to a state meet. If we have a bad day it could be over.”
—All stats as recorded by the Florida High School Athletic Association.
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