By Kyle LoJacono
The Land O’ Lakes boys track and field team repeated as Class 3A-District 6 champs April 16 at Wiregrass Ranch, but the road to consecutive titles was anything put nicely paved.
The Gators’ adversity started a year ago when they lost eight graduates who scored 100 points at districts in 2012.
This season, Land O’ Lakes totaled 125.5 points, besting second-place Wiregrass Ranch by 14.5. Sunlake took seventh (41) at the 11-team event.
Second-year Gators coach Bill Schmitz said no one person made consecutive titles happen.
“People have asked how are we going to replace those points, well it’s been a group effort,” Schmitz said. “It wasn’t about one superstar. I mean John Pace was seeded 24th in the 1,600 (meters) and came in sixth. Shaheed Salmon was seeded 15th in the discus (throw) and came in fifth. … This is just an unbelievable team. They come to compete and win every meet, and that’s why we haven’t lost to anyone in Pasco County in two years.”
One of the biggest holes for Land O’ Lakes was in the hurdles, where Darin Patmon and Kyle McKee scored 27 points at districts last year.
“Jamel Clark, Austin McGuire and Cole McCreery have helped replace those hurdlers,” Schmitz said. “Austin had hurdled before, but we had to get him to join the team because he didn’t run last year, and then Cole and Jamel answered the ad I had in the first meeting when I said we need hurdlers. … Nathan Randall understood the techniques and ran the drills like another coach in practice.”
Clark took runner-up in the 110 hurdles (16.06 seconds).
“I was confident in my ability because of the training of our great coaches,” Clark said. “They helped in the whole process in learning the hurdles.”
The junior had never competed in the hurdles before this season, but said he knew it was where the team needed him.
“We go into every meet knowing that every point is crucial,” Clark said. “We want to compete and get every point we can for our team.”
The Gators totaled 18 points in the two hurdle events.
Land O’ Lakes also lost sprinter/jumper Stefan Zapata to an injured hamstring sustained the week before districts. The junior was projected to score in the long and triple jumps, but he was able to execute only one attempt in the long before scratching out of the meet.
“He was the No. 1 seed in the triple jump and No. 2 seed in the long jump,” Schmitz said. “That’s 18 points right there we gave up.”
Land O’ Lakes suffered another major loss when junior distance runner Travis Nichols was diagnosed with a fractured right foot near the start of the year. Nichols was a state qualifier in the 3,200 last year and hasn’t competed once this track season.
Juniors Tyler Stahl and Jake Poore helped offset losing Nichols.
Stahl was primarily a 3,200 runner in 2012 and Poore focused on the 1,600, but each has doubled up this season.
“Me and Jake have trained with each other a lot,” Stahl said. “It’s really helped to have him to compete against in practice. When Travis went down, Jake really stepped up to fill that hole and push everyone.”
Stahl won district titles in the 1,600 (4:27.25) and 3,200 (10:07.92), while Poore took third (4:35.14) and fourth (10:34.66), respectively.
Stahl was the only member of the squad to win an event at districts, but the Gators will be well represented at regionals with athletes advancing in 13 of the 17 events.
Sophomore Ethan Weilant earned his first regional berth by placing third in the 800 (2:01.32) just a few months after right shoulder surgery that has prevented him from throwing the discus all season. He also qualified with the 4×800 relay (8:33.60, third place).
“When I had the injury I didn’t think this was going to happen; I didn’t even think I’d be able to run track,” Weilant said. “Last week I was working really hard, and that really helped. … The times coming in was really good, so I didn’t know if I could do it, but I ran 2:01 in the 4×800, and that was my best time ever.”
Senior Kyle Forchion took second in the high jump (5-feet, 10-inches), while senior pole vaulter Colin Defant placed third (12).
The Gators also took second in the 4×100 relay (43.95), finishing 0.27 seconds behind Sunlake.
Land O’ Lakes defeated the Seahawks at districts last year, and senior Eddie Burgos, the relay’s anchor, said he wasn’t going to let that happen again.
“Coach made a record board for me against Land O’ Lakes in the 4×100, and I was just 3-3 coming in,” Burgos said. “We had to come out and win it this time and get the championship.”
Burgos also won the 100 (10.92) by besting the defending district champion Jordan Roberts, a Zephyrhills junior, by 0.03 seconds.
“He beat me last year, and I didn’t want that to happen my senior year,” Burgos said. “I beat him at conference, so I knew he was coming for me. Just had to do it.”
The regional meet is April 24 at Leto.
//Gators’ trio of district titles
Land O’ Lakes girls track and field athletes claimed three district titles during the 3A-6 meet April 16 at Wiregrass Ranch.
Junior Hallie Grimes captured her third straight district crown in the 400 by running a 57.25, her best time of the season, and did so while battling a sore left hamstring.
“I felt a lot of pressure on me because I’ve won it the last two years,” Grimes said. “I felt comfortable here because this is where districts was my freshman year. I know the track; we’ve run here a lot, so I felt like I could do it.”
The two-time state qualifier also set a new personal record (PR) in the long jump (17-01.75, fifth).
Grimes ran anchor for the 4×400 relay that also won districts in (4:11.14). She started her leg about three strides behind Springstead, but exploded forward to win by more than three seconds.
Gators coach Rock Ridgway is pleased with the relay’s progress and sees more room to grow.
“I actually see about another three seconds out of them,” Ridgeway said. “Next week with competition at regionals, I think they can cut three to five seconds.”
Kassidy Wallace was the first from Land O’ Lakes to win a title, setting a new program record in the triple jump (35-07) and also broke her PR by more than two feet.
“Something has just been happening the last couple weeks,” Wallace said. “Not sure why, but I’ve felt great. … I’ve been getting more confident with the triple jump because it’s kind of awkward when you start. I feel like the steps are more natural now.”
The junior had the added pressure of doing all three of her finals attempts after the other competitors were finished.
“They were waiting on her; she had just come back from the 100 hurdles, and I think the adrenaline was running really big,” Ridgeway said.
Ridgeway said Wallace jumped six to eight inches behind the line on her winning attempt.
“I thought it was a really bad jump,” Wallace said. “I couldn’t believe when they said 35-07.”
The Gators finished third at the event with 67.5 points. Wiregrass Ranch won its fifth straight district title (143), while Belleview took second (118.5).
The regional meet is April 24 at Leto.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker