It’d be understandable if the Sunlake High School varsity cross country program took a slight step back following a banner 2019 campaign that saw its boys team finish fifth and girls team sixth at the Class 3A state championship — the best combined finish that year among schools in all classifications in The Laker/Lutz News coverage area.
Those respective Seahawks’ seniors — many of whom are now running in college — all but carried the program to the banner showing, including:
- Five of the boys team’s top seven runners were seniors, four of whom are now running on scholarship at in-state Flagler College, Saint Leo University and Southeastern University, respectively.
- Three of the girls team’s top seven runners were seniors, including decorated and school record-setting Liina Winborn, who finished fourth overall at the 2019 state finals (18:11.16),
and is now on a distance running scholarship at Division I University of Florida.
But, this year’s Seahawks teams may soar to even greater heights, once the season officially crosses the finish line.
The boys and girls squads each swept its conference championship and district championships. At regionals on Nov. 7 at Holloway Park in Lakeland, the boys took first place and the girls took runner-up.
With that, both advance to the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) 3A state championships on Nov. 14, at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.
Expectations at states are a top three or four finish for the boys, and a top four or five for the girls, respectively.
So, what else separates this team from years past? A valuable combination of depth, dedication, accountability, and some natural talent, of course.
“We lost a lot of seniors last year who went on to run in college,” said Sunlake distance coach Randal Reeves, “but, returning runners from last year just really stepped it up, by putting in all the training over the summer; that’s what made the difference, and all that hard work is just paying off.”
Reeves further praised teammates for having the commitment to show up to practices and workouts each day, and doing what is asked of them, and more.
“These kids are extremely dedicated,” the seventh-year coach said. “You’ve gotta have the right kids involved, and I’m blessed. I do have the right kids.”
The effort level comes from many of the runners’ desires to earn college scholarships and compete at the next level, the coach said.
“Every single one of these kids is looking to run in college,” Reeves said. “They don’t want to miss out on the opportunity to get their training in so that they can perform well, so I think that’s what the difference is with these kids. They all want to get some races in so they can show a recruiter, ‘Hey, look at the times I’ve been running,’ so I think that might be where a lot of the dedication is from.”
The inner drive to succeed elsewhere comes from distance runners having what likely would’ve been a banner track season ripped away from them back in March, as all spring sports were canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic surge.
“I think it’s definitely a lot of build-up from almost having an incomplete season of track,” said junior Caitlyn Culpepper, a team captain.
“I think that motivation definitely carried into our summer training, because I know when I ended the (track) season, I was like, ‘Wow, I have so much more left to give,’ so we just carried that motivation into our summer training, ‘Hey, we’ve gotta work harder. We weren’t able to achieve this goal of state tracks, so let’s put this toward cross-country,’ so I think that drove a lot of us. We were just ready to get out there and start competing again.”
More with less
Other top-level 3A cross-country programs may have anywhere from 50 to 100 runners on their roster.
Sunlake has less than 30 runners combined between the boys and girls teams.
In this case, it’s about quality, not quantity.
Both squads boast eight closely matched runners who are strong enough to register points (finish in the top five for their team in a race).
Each squad’s No. 6 or No. 7 runner may finish as high as No. 4 or No. 5 in a particular meet or race.
It’s one of those good problems to have.
“I have the problem, of my top seven, any one of ‘em would be varsity on any team in the state of Florida. I mean, they’re that good,” Reeves said.
This tight margin among Sunlake runners has created an accountability factor among each other, keeping everyone on their toes and forced to give their best effort in practice and meets.
The girls team, for example, has eight runners who run a 5K (3.1 miles) under 22-minutes, led by senior Shannon Gordy, who’s personal record is 18:53. The boys team has eight runners who can finish under 18 minutes, led by junior Colby Robbins, who captured individual titles at conference, districts and regionals, and whose personal-best 15:56 is two seconds off the school record held by the graduated Gavin Kennedy (15:54.6).
“We’re so close in times, which gives us that awesome pack up in the front,” Culpepper said, “and, you know, we have that accountability for each other, so we’re able to push each other, so that inner competition among each other creates for great competition against other teams.”
The depth means “it could be anybody’s race,” even for those lower-ranked runners, said Gordy. “Those No. 6 and No. 7 runners, they know that we’re strong as a whole and they have a part in the team. They may not score points, but they know they’re important to our team. As the team runs, we run as a group,” she said.
Robbins likewise underscored how the depth — and corresponding camaraderie, he said — has carried the team so far: “If somebody decides to slack off, instead of just saying, ‘Oh, that’s not me, it’s individual sport,’ we’re going to get on them because we care, so I think that’s what sets us apart. We have a degree of responsibility that we uphold for each other, because I’m not going to be the one that holds my team back, because we all care about each other.”
Other reasons for the program forming as one of the state’s best is Reeves, who’s earned his fair share of Sunshine Athletic Conference Coach of the Year honors in cross-country and track.
“He can take anyone and turn them into a great athlete, and if you have natural talent, he can then turn you into world-class,” said Robbins, who entered Sunlake as a soccer player but made the transition to distance running freshman year, and is now among the state’s best runners in Class 3A.
“Even though we don’t have the biggest group, because of coach’s training and because of our buy into the training, he’s able to take a group of 15 boys and make them state contenders.”
Senior Cade Whitfield missed all of last season amid a hip injury. He returned this year as the team’s No. 3 runner and a personal-best 16:37.
Whitfield credits Reeves’ passion for the sport and attention to each runner’s needs and goals.
“I’ve never experienced a coach like him,” he said. “He sat down with me with college recruiting and told me every single step I’ve needed to take, and he’s honestly the one that inspired me to give it my all like he does, because I just didn’t want to give 50% for him.”
Gordy expressed similar feelings for the coach: “He knows every runner has different motivations and different goals, so he makes sure that he specializes our training to what we want to run, like our times, and like what we want to do after high school, and how we want to get there.”
Running through quarantine
Even with myriad medals and trophies earned this season, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for Sunlake this season.
The team was forced to quarantine from Sept. 24 through Oct. 3 after one of its runners tested positive for COVID-19.
Unable to practice together as a group, runners had to train individually and log their times online each day. Meetings and workout instructions were held virtually, through Zoom.
The team took the setback in stride, viewing it as an opportunity to not take the season for granted.
“Being quarantined, it really showed the value of having teammates to run with,” said Culpepper. “When you’re running on your own, you’ve gotta push yourself a little more, versus, when you’re running with the team as committed as you are, it definitely helps you.
“It’s definitely made us more appreciative of our team and our dynamic, and the ability that we have to be able to run together and even have a season this year. It was kind of a new perspective that we needed,” he said.
Gordy believes the occurrence made the team stronger, in the end, too.
“I feel like when we came back, we were eager to race and be better at the races, and we were more rested,” she said. “It was like a refreshment, kind of. Like a break, and then we focus on what we want as a team.”
As Reeves puts it: “The world gave us lemons, and we decided to make lemonade out of it.”
Now, looking ahead to this weekend’s state championship, the Seahawks are confident for a strong showing — maybe even better than 2019’s version.
Training at Trout Creek Park in Thonotosassa — plus past experience competing at states — has prepared Sunlake for the mix of hills and flat terrain at the Apalachee course, Reeves said.
“It plays well for us,” Reeves said of the state meet course. “We do a lot of our training that replicates parts of the state course, and so they’re not surprised. When they get out to that course, they’re going to feel fine, nothing’s going to shock them, they’re going to know how to run.”
Sunlake varsity boys cross-country
- Colby Robbins, junior (15:56)
- Alex Pena, sophomore (16:15)
- Cade Whitfield, senior (16:37)
- Cason Meyer, junior (16:48)
- Andres Alfonso, junior (16:54)
- Max Goserud, junior (17:13)
- Nathan Lee, sophomore (17:39)
- Cody Smith, junior (17:47)
Sunlake varsity girls cross-country
- Shannon Gordy, senior (18:53, personal record)
- Ashley Spires, senior (19:59)
- Atlanta Lofton, sophomore (20:26)
- Shelby Viseur, junior (20:44)
- Caitlyn Culpepper, junior (20:44)
- Sarah Ellingson, junior (20:48)
- Annie Winborn, sophomore (21:01)
- Abigail Williams, freshman (21:10)
Published November 11, 2020