Everything was in place for a successful year for Land O’ Lakes High School cross-country team: High expectations, skilled runners and a dedicated coach with decades of experience under his belt.
The runners were optimistic and prepared for whatever they had to face on the various courses.
Unfortunately, nobody was prepared for Coach Kris Keppel’s recent pancreatic cancer diagnosis. Now the man who hadn’t missed a competition in 20 years of coaching has been forced to miss practices and meets, leaving the team stunned and concerned.
“I was just shocked, and I think the rest of the team was, too,” said Tyler Stahl, one of the team’s top runners. ” You feel like if you’ve been through something like this before — like with Steven — there’s no way it could happen again.”
“Steven” is Steven Barnebei, a cross-country athlete who was diagnosed with brain cancer in his junior season. After emergency surgery and dozens of radiation doses, Barnebei has returned to the sport in his senior year with a cancer-free diagnosis and a determination to compete at a high level.
That experience was emotionally taxing for the team last year. And now, after rallying around their teammate, the runners now have to rally around their coach. Since the diagnosis, it’s the experienced runners who have stepped up to lead the team.
Stahl and Travis Nichols — seniors, team captains and state qualifiers last year — are getting a lot of support from parents and Rick Moody, a friend of Keppel’s with experience coaching Olympic athletes. But they know that to keep things running smoothly, they have to demonstrate real leadership both on and off the courses.
“We’ve had to really step up in keeping our team focused on post-season goals, and keeping them from being discouraged from the setbacks,” Nichols said. That means coaching teammates in practice and keeping them focused and upbeat during events.
Keppel still guides the team by sending out workouts and goal times via email, and the team leaders know that everyone wants to succeed for him.
“The team is staying pretty focused and we just keep saying that they need to work hard and perform well for coach,” Stahl said.
Working hard and performing well was commonplace when Keppel was at every practice and competition, and it’s carrying over in his absence: The team placed third in the 2013 Gator Invitational Oct. 5 at Crews Lake Park. At the event, the top times were nearly dominated by Land O’ Lakes runners. Nichols took first place, Stahl took third and teammate Jake Poore finished fourth. All three broke the 17-minute mark easily.
Both Stahl and Nichols share optimism for the rest of the year, and look forward to having their coach back as soon as possible. And while it might seem difficult to keep running and stay focused while missing their leader, nobody is letting up or lowering their goals because Coach Keppel isn’t able to be there right now.
In fact, Stahl said he’s been able to improve his concentration in the face of the team’s recent adversity.
“I think it is actually easier to focus on running after hearing about” Keppel’s diagnosis, Stahl said. “I have more of an incentive to work hard and do well than before. I want to make him proud.”
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