By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes boys cross country team had its best state performance in three years, and the Gators credited their 11th-place finish to someone watching from the sidelines.
The inspiration came from Steven Barnabei.
The junior had been Land O’ Lakes’ No. 5 runner and a team captain this season, but he was given a devastating diagnosis less than a month ago.
Barnabei had a brain tumor that needed to be removed immediately. He had surgery Nov. 2, the same day the Gators were competing at districts.
“It was really a shock for all of us,” said junior Travis Nichols. “You don’t expect something like that to happen and right at districts. It was just a big blow for the team.”
The squad dedicated the season to Barnabei and wore a patch with his initials during regionals.
“They came out to my house, all of them, the day before regionals,” Barnabei said. “At first I didn’t know what was going on. When they said they’d be wearing the patch and dedicating the season, I was really surprised.”
It was Barnabei’s turn to surprise his teammates by making the trip to the Class 3A meet at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee for states.
“We’re glad he could make it,” said Land O’ Lakes coach Kris Keppel. “He and his mom (Mary Anne) needed a break.”
Keppel said his running group and his Gators are helping Barnabei’s family during the holidays because Mary Anne had two jobs, but has been without work the last two weeks while caring for her son.
“It’s really been an inspirational story,” Keppel said while fighting tears. “We help them, they help us in spirit to run the best race. I think for the most part we did that today. … Steven is like the son I never had. I take him home after practice. To have him here is great.”
Barnabei had one last piece of inspiration for his teammates — a prerace speech.
“I told them to focus and use everything they’ve learned throughout the season,” Barnabei said. “I told them to focus on the race and have a sharp mind even when you don’t think they need it. They all did that. … They’ve run like this before, but for them to heed the words that I told them last night and be able to focus today is really amazing.”
Nichols, who finished 12th by completing the 5-kilometer course in 15 minutes 57 seconds, said he thought of what Barnabei was going through during the race.
“It was all for him,” Nichols said. “He went through more pain than any of us going through brain surgery, so the least we could do is run well for him.”
Teammate Tyler Stahl (17th, 16:02) added, “I had some major pain running today, but then I thought about Steven and what he’s going through and everything he’s endured, and what I did was nothing compared to that.”
Barnabei said he has seen a lot of progress since the surgery.
“Right after, I couldn’t really talk much or hold a fork or knife or anything,” Barnabei said. “Now I can write again, and obviously well enough to come out here and cheer on my teammates. … I’m hoping I’ll be able to go back to school in about a week. Right now it’s hectic, but once I get everything back to normal I’ll be glad.”
As for the race, Land O’ Lakes changed its training this year by taking every three weeks off to be fresh for postseason.
“I think that definitely helped us,” Nichols said. “We were more energized. We took every third race off, and the past week we eased it up so we could run well at states.”
Keppel was happy to have two runners in the top 20 and believes top 10 and a spot on the podium is the next step.
“We were hoping that one of them would get on the podium, but we have next year to look forward to that,” Keppel said. “Both of them will be on the podium next year.”
The Gators will return five of their top seven runners, including the entire top three. Keppel sees good things on the horizon.
“This is the third year of our building process,” Keppel said. “Next year is going to be hopefully our year. Continue to build some depth. … It’s been a good year, and I’m glad we finished on a good note.”
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker