The Seahawks can fly.
On the course, on the track, on the road — every year they soar to the state tournament as Pasco County’s most dominant cross-country team for nearly a decade.
Even as Sunlake loses arguably its greatest runner to graduation, both the boys and girls cross-country teams have circled a date with the state tournament in Tallahassee in November.
“I think these teams, both of them, are, as we like to say, podium teams,” said longtime boys and girls coach Randall Reeves, who enters his 11th season at the helm. “We basically do the same thing year after year and don’t change things up.
“It’s all about dedication,” he added. “If I get a group of kids who show up for practices, we’re going to states. None of these kids do this just as a hobby. They’re in it for all the right reasons and they don’t come out here just to run around.
“We keep it simple, and that’s working for us. Why change what works when it’s that simple?”
For years now, what Reeves has done has worked. In 2022, both the boys and girls teams finished sixth at the Class 4A state tournament, which continues a streak of dominance by the Seahawks. The teams have advanced to states seven straight seasons, as well won the Sunshine Athletic Conference title seven years in a row.
Both teams also are the top ranked teams in Class 4A.
Capping it all off, former top runner Alex Pena was fifth overall at cross-country states, as well as the 1600-meter state champion in track.
But each year, Sunlake seems to reload, or even get better, as the youth on the team get older, faster and stronger.
“I have 16 boys and I have 16 girls,” Reeves said. “Some teams in Florida have 30, 40 runners — we just faced a team that had something like 70 boys. … But this way we can get the best out of the top runners, get them on the podium. Sometimes, less is more.”
Despite losing its top runner, Sunlake — both the boys and the girls — might be adding more with subtraction.
On the girls side, the Seahawks return top runner, senior Abigail Williams, who finished 41st at states in 2022 after a “bad race.” She’s got her eyes on the podium and is looking to top her personal best with a sub-18-minute race.
Additionally, the girls also have Kailyn Ford, who was 51st at states. The team also can turn to a plethora of talented runners in Avery Pham, Katelin Wilcox, Kaitlyn Zabrocki and Leah Foster.
“I think that we are expecting to improve this year (at states),” Williams said. “I also think we can get way higher than we did last year. I want to get on the podium and I think the team could get on the podium, too.
“We’ve worked all summer, done a lot of mileage and I think we’ve just gotten better.”
On the boys side, junior Cade Culpepper is looking to improve his 52nd-place finish at states, while the Hindman brothers, Christian (43rd) and Josh (156th), also are eyeing better finishes. Rounding out the top of the roster is Oscar Brown (110th) and Joaquin Abansas.
“We’ve got a great group of boys that are striving to do even better at states,” Culpepper said. “Even though it was, technically, a good finish last year, we’re looking for a lot more at states. That’s what we’re trying to do this year: take advantage of the boys we have and go for a much better finish — a podium spot.”
While Culpepper has been posting the best boys time so far, Reeves points out all five of the team’s top runners could be No. 1.
That, however, is a great problem to have.
“It’s a very good thing that we’re all close on times because we’re pushing each other,” Culpepper added. “All the top five boys are right there next to each other and it just makes you want to work harder for the top spot.
“You want to beat your teammates and have that edge, but competitiveness just helps us as a team overall, because if we’re all pushing each other that much, we’re just going to be better as a team.”
And while three of the top five runners for the girls are freshman, Williams agrees.
“Yeah, but they’re really fast,” she said with a sly smile.
Throughout the season, Reeves doesn’t plan to change a thing — continuing to keep his strategy simple.
Because it works as the Seahawks continue to soar.
“I don’t do crazy workouts, I don’t mess with what works for (our runners),” Reeves said. “I don’t bring in any funky workouts. A lot of young coaches will come in and do this funky stuff and routines and weird stretches.
“I go back to what I did in high school because my coach is in a hall of fame in Ohio. I’m old school, so I’m going to keep it simple because the finishes speak for themselves over the years.”
Published September 13, 2023