By Kyle LoJacono
Fast rebuilding projects are something the Wiregrass Ranch boys cross country team has become quite good at.
Last year, the Bulls had to replace their top-four runners from a squad that won conference, district and regional championships.
Despite the losses, Wiregrass Ranch managed to again sweep its conference, district and regional meets while placing sixth at the Class 3A state final, matching the best result in the program history.
“It was tied for the best performance, but we scored the least points, so it was our best team,” said sixth-year Bulls coach Chris Loth. “Last year was our best team.”
Three of Loth’s top seven graduated from that 2011 squad — Tyler Mattera, David Hill and The Laker/Lutz News Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year Sam Hippely.
The losses have been substantial, but those back from that sixth-place squad have no interest in taking a step back.
“The expectations were high last year because the team has won so much, but everyone thought we’d be worse than we were,” said senior Thor Alastre, who moved up to varsity last season with teammate Ben Hall. “It was fun, exciting to show people we could still do it.”
Hall, a senior, added, “We work really hard to win. This is one of the best sports teams at the school, and we want to keep that reputation. … Coming into last season I knew we’d lost a lot of great runners, and I was really nervous. I knew we’d have to all make up for what we lost, but I knew we still had really good runners.”
Loth said the squad still has plenty of talented runners on his 26-member roster, principle among them seniors Ermias Bireda and Patrick Hill along with Alastre and Hall.
“The top four seniors, we never missed practice this whole summer,” Alastre said. “We run no matter the weather, rain or the sun.”
Loth added that Alastre and Hall are taking over the leadership right now as Bireda and Hill recover from inflammation in their shins from over-training.
“The four seniors we have this year are awesome,” Loth said. “We just have to get them all in the same race, and that’s not going to happen for awhile. People are going to look at us and say we stink, and they’re not going to know what we’re really like and that we’re still a good team until conference when everyone is back. Conference, I think, will be the first meet where we’re all running together and all in shape.”
Loth’s said his confidence comes from the fact that his runners are not only talented, but also because they are completely committed to keeping Wiregrass Ranch at the top of every meet they enter.
“Being on this team has been the best part of my high school experience, really,” Hall said. “I got to meet so many great kids, and we’ve done a lot of winning, which makes it more fun of course.”
Hall, whose personal record (PR) in a 5-kilometer race is 16 minutes 52 seconds, said he had no interest in running before high school.
“I was kind of a lazy kid, but my friend Tyler said I should join the cross country team,” said Hall, who wants to cut his time to 16:30. “Once I did, I realized all my friends were on the team, and I really liked it.”
Alastre (PR 17:05, goal 16:30) added, “It’s an indescribable feeling being a part of this team. Our slower runners are faster than the top guys on a lot of other teams. It’s challenging because one week someone runs the best, and the next week it’s someone else. It pushes you to be your best.”
That push is currently coming from a group of young runners who want to secure a varsity spot while Bireda and Hill are recovering.
“We have our best group of freshmen in years,” Loth said. “We had two freshmen debut in the low 20s and Keval (Patel) is also right there, and I’ve got two more right behind them. I think by the end of this season those guys are going to push the other guys. I’m confident that we’re developing very well, and I expect to see a couple freshmen in the postseason for the first time in five years.”
The Bulls will compete at the FLRunners.com Invitational in Titusville on Sept. 29.
Wiregrass Ranch’s top-10 runners
Thor Alastre, Sr.
Ermias Bireda, Sr.
Brennan Cameli, Jr.
Stefan Dordevic, So.
Ben Hall, Sr.
Patrick Hill, Sr.
Andy Hippely, So.
Jarred Lanier, Jr.
Christian Suriel, Fr.
Collin Tifft, So.