Bulls girls look for spot on state medal stand
By Kyle LoJacono
At this time last year, the Wiregrass Ranch girls cross country team was searching to find replacements for four of its top seven from a team that won conference, district and regional titles.
The Bulls responded with their fourth straight Sunshine Athletic Conference and district crown while placing seventh overall at the Class 3A state meet, the second-best finish in the program’s six-year history.
“Last year was a good surprise for us because we had lost four girls who we built the program around,” said Don Howard, the only coach in program history. “This season will be completely different because we’ve got everybody back, but what it did do was establish what we’re doing will create runners.”
The 2012 squad returns its entire top seven, creating anticipation and greater expectations.
“It’s exciting, but it’s like a different kind of pressure,” Howard said. “Our team goal is to win the fifth straight conference and district title. We want to, as a team, reclaim the regional title, which we finished regional runner-up after winning it the two previous years. We have a goal of top three in the state, and only the top two get to stand on the podium and get a trophy.”
Nikita Shah and Elsie Cedre, Wiregrass Ranch’s top two runners, are among those with more than one year experience with the program. Shah, a senior, finished fourth overall at the 3A state meet last year, while Cedre, a junior, took 64th.
Shah, the two-time reigning The Laker/Lutz News Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, said being a part of the Bulls’ program has been one of the best experiences of her life.
“Coach Howard is definitely a great coach, and I’m really thankful I have him as a coach,” Shah said. “It’s nice to be a part of a team that’s one of the best in the state. We definitely have a chance to medal at states this year.”
Cedre added, “I think it’s a real blessing. We’ve got a really great team. We all work really hard for everything that we do, and our coach is great. We’re really blessed to have a good concoction of people.”
Cedre said having the top runners back also means they won’t have to adjust to meeting new people.
“We all have our ups and downs,” Cedre said. “Sometimes we have little tiffs, but a lot of the time during our runs we talk about pushing each other. Someone pushes the pace and we all push to keep up. If we think someone is going to fall behind we’ll lean back with them, but if we can we’ll push it together, and I think that benefits us.”
One of the 2011 additions who stuck in the top seven is junior Savannah Goode.
“Last year we showed we’re really competitive in the state, so this year we have to show that we do have what it takes to be on the podium at states,” Goode said. “We have to train a lot harder than last year because we’re stepping up to a new level.”
Goode, whose personal record (PR) in a 5-kilometer race is 20 minutes 45 seconds, started cross country to get in shape for cheerleading.
“I ended up liking it a lot more than cheerleading, so I gave up cheerleading last October,” Goode said. “When I first came out I didn’t even think I’d make the team, but I ended up finding out I was really good at it. That made it really fun and everyone was really supportive.”
Wiregrass Ranch does add another talented runner in freshman Madison Conway. She ran track at John Long Middle just down Mansfield Boulevard from Wiregrass Ranch, giving her ample opportunity to learn about the Bulls’ program.
“This is an unbelievable team,” Conway said. “Training this summer was great, and I got to meet everyone. It’s definitely better than what my expectations were, and I knew they were really good. … They let me join in right away even though I was coming from eighth grade.”
Madison has yet to set a PR because she’s never done a 5K race but has run farther in practice. The freshman has been clocked at 5 minutes 36 seconds in the 1,600-meters (1-mile).
“I’m looking forward to see where she ends up because she comes in with the same kind of talent that Nikita did as a freshman, or that Arial Grey had as a freshman,” Howard said. “Those are girls who have won conference titles and competed to be the best in the state.”
Shah’s PR of 17:52 is better than any other returning runner in Pasco County, and the senior wants to cut that as close to 17 as possible. Cedre’s PR sits at 19:30 with the goal of trimming it to 19.
“We have a goal of putting seven girls under 20 minutes, which we’ve never come close to before,” Howard said. “I think realistically we have a shot at that, along with the top five under 19:30. Those are the kinds of things we’re going to have to do to finish where we want in the state meet. So far so good.”
The Bulls compete Sept. 15 at the Jim Ryan Invitational at Lakeland Christian.
—Results as record by the Florida High School Athletic Association