By Kyle LoJacono
The goal for the Land O’ Lakes boys and girls cross country teams may be different, but the principle is the same — take a step beyond last year’s squad.
For the girls that means making regionals — for the boys sights are set higher.
Land O’ Lakes girls cross country
The program is only three seasons removed from an appearance at the state meet, a season that saw the Gators finish as district runner-up and take 19th at the Class 3A final. Since then, Land O’ Lakes has failed to advance beyond districts, and none of the returning runners have made it to regionals.
“They were awesome then,” said senior Katie Monds. “Our goal is to take a step further and bring some of that excitement back. We really want to get to regionals, and I think we can do that if we motivate ourselves and stay determined.”
Monds joined the squad last year. Her first time in a 5-kilomter race was 24 minutes 30 seconds. She has gotten that personal record (PR) to 21:22 and has the goal of cutting it below 20.
“At first I played basketball,” Monds said. “A lot of my friends ran cross country. Louisa (Cestone) said, ‘You should come out for the team.’ I did, and the first practice I ended up really enjoying it. I just stuck with it ever since. It’s like an addiction with running.”
Second-year Gators girls coach Karen DeHaas said of Monds, “She’s a good leader. She’s good at motivating the kids, and she’s a good example. She improved every meet last year.”
Monds said she and Cestone, the only other senior on the Gators’ roster, have been working to step up as leaders to get the young team ready for a trip to regionals.
“We’ve been doing a lot of long runs and hill workouts just trying to get the team to our best so that we’re prepared for this year,” Monds said. She added, “It’s really exciting, especially because they’re so young. We’ve been out at 7 in the morning all summer to get ready. They’re motivated to get far. You’re thinking about what they can do their 12th-grade year. They’re going to be really fast.”
Land O’ Lakes will face tough competition to get out of districts; principle among the opposition is Wiregrass Ranch.
The Bulls have won four straight Sunshine Athletic Conference (SAC) and district titles.
“We have phenomenal competition,” DeHaas said. “The returners know about that, and when the freshmen run their first meet, I think that will motivate them too. They’re going to be determined that someone isn’t going to pass them or that they’re going to pass somebody. They understand about competition.”
Land O’ Lakes boys cross country
The 2011 Gators reached states for the sixth time in seven seasons, but the ending left a bad taste in their mouths. They felt like a squad that could have finished better than 21st in the 24-team event.
“Last year was kind of a disappointing year,” said junior Tyler Stahl (PR 16:15, goal 15:30). “We still made it to states, but we didn’t do very well. We’ve kind of used that this summer because we want to get in the top 10.”
Kris Keppel, who is entering his 19th year leading the program, is changing the squad’s training regimen with the goal of having his runners rested come November.
“We’ve increased our mileage this summer,” Keppel said. “That was my goal to make sure we were running longer distances. We’ve also changed our schedule this year. We’re going to run three weeks in a row and then take a week off. That’s something we haven’t done before. I just wanted us to be fresh at the end of the season. We didn’t run very well at regionals, and I didn’t want to repeat the same thing we did last year.”
The squad’s top runner Travis Nichols, who won an individual district title last season and was named the Sunshine Athletic Conference Runner of the Year, thinks the break every three weeks will benefit the squad.
“I think it’s going to help a lot,” said Nichols (PR 15:58, goal 15:15), a junior. “I wasn’t the only one feeling tired. As the year went on, the whole team was worn out.”
Land O’ Lakes lost only one of its top seven runners, Tyler MacDonald, to graduation, meaning most of the athletes are back and motivated to improve on their own 2011 performance.
“This is a pretty dedicated group,” Keppel said. “We’ve got 15 runners, and for the most part they were at practice all summer long unless they were on vacation. We’re hoping to take it to the next level. That’s our theme this year. Getting it past the commitment level and getting on to more things like being responsible for our actions.”
The Gators get a boost with the healthy return of junior Steven Barnabei (PR 17:43, goal 16:50), who tore the abductor in his leg after the track season as a freshman.
“I believe I got back to where I would have been had I not injured myself,” Barnabei said. “Coaches really helped me with that. … I want to see what I can do in states. I want to win districts with my team and give it the best I’ve got.”
Barnabei said he draws inspiration to be faster from watching fellow juniors Nichols and Stahl run.
“I look up to Travis and Tyler as the top competitors in the state,” Barnabei said. “It’s been a pleasure to run with them. These guys are here to help me train and help the rest of the team as well.”
Keppel said the strength of the team is the junior class, but he pointed out the squad won’t go anywhere without senior Jake Poore.
“Jake is our No. 3 runner, and he’s been very consistent,” Keppel said. “He’s going to add a lot to this team. He’s the depth of our team. Without him we won’t be able to accomplish our goals.”
All the Gators will need to be running at top form to get by Wiregrass Ranch. The Bulls have won district championships the last four seasons along with conference and regional titles three straight years.
“It’s great competition,” Nichols said. “They’re all good guys and good runners. It’s a great rivalry. They all work hard, and this year we can really try to stay with them. They’re always blowing us out. I think this year it’ll be a little closer. … Last year, me and Tyler were trying to beat their guys, but we didn’t have that strong five. Now we have a strong five and strong seven.”
Keppel said that depth gives Land O’ Lakes a chance to beat their rival.
“They know they have a shot at Wiregrass, who beat us in districts along with Sarasota,” Keppel said. “If everybody is on we can do that. Our motivation is we can be a top 10 team at states. They didn’t finish last year. I had to make some adjustments as a coach; they’re adjusted and motivated. I don’t think we’re going to disappoint anybody.”
Land O’ Lakes girls roster
Kara Armatrout, Fr.
Louisa Cestone*, Sr.
Carolyn Estrella, So.
Keanu Gerald, Jr.
Mary-Kathryn Guenette, So.
Lauren Hale, Fr.
Cheyenne Herron, Jr.
Katie Monds*, Sr.
Samantha Sodetz, Jr.
Lindsey Weilant, Fr.
Land O’ Lakes boys roster
Nathan Abernathy, Fr.
Steven Barnabei*, Jr.
Robert Davidson, Sr.
Austin Dotson, Fr.
Bailey Konruff, Fr.
Travis Nichols, Jr.
Trevor Nichols, Jr.
Aaron O’Brien, Sr.
Dillon Oergel, Sr.
Tim Olson, Jr.
John Pace, Sr.
Jake Poore, Jr.
Tyler Stahl*, Jr.
Noah Thomas, So.
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