For this group of distance runners, the thousands of miles of foot to pavement have finally paid off — in the form of college athletic scholarships.
The past few years, Sunlake High School’s boys and girls cross-country and long distance track programs have established themselves as among the best in the area, and the state.
This year’s National Signing Day festivities underscored that fact: Five senior runners made their college commitments official on Feb. 5 — Luke Scheid (Flagler College), Gavin Kennedy (Saint Leo University), Drew Knobl (Southeastern University), Albert La Red (Saint Leo University), and Liina Winborn (University of Florida). A sixth distance runner, Emily Jenkins (Pasco-Hernando State College) participated in an early signing day ceremony in December.
Sunlake also celebrated two boys lacrosse signings — Jason Schwarz (Barton College) and Roberto Valentin (Webber International University).
But, it was a particularly special day for the Seahawks’ runners, who leave a lasting legacy as they take the next step to the college ranks.
The Seahawks cross-country program in 2019 experienced arguably its best season ever, as the boys squad finished fifth and the girls team sixth at the Class 3A FHSAA state championships. Both teams also claimed conference titles and had strong showings at districts. The girls took first place, and the boys finished runner-up. Both squads also garnered top-five finishes at regionals — boys, third; and girls, fourth.
Many of those same distance runners also helped steer the school’s 2019 track team to sweep conference and district crowns. The boys team went on to win regionals, while the girls finished runner-up that season, then advanced to states.
Saint Leo University signee Albert La Red believes the distance team’s recent string of success and the large 2020 signing class now will help underclassman gain exposure from colleges and universities “that weren’t looking at us before.”
“It’s exciting,” La Red said, “because now we get these young guys over there, they have such a bright future for them.”
Sunlake’s distance runners logged an estimated average of 1,600 miles per year, with some runners racking up as many as 7,000 miles during their four-year prep running careers.
Besides developing their athletic skills, the grueling practices and stressful meets also forged lasting bonds and memories for La Red and other distance runners.
“I grew up with everybody at this school, and so it was super fun just running with my friends all time,” La Red said. “We always hang out outside of school and stuff, always inviting each other over, always doing things.”
Fellow teammate and Flagler College signee Luke Scheid also appreciates the “lifelong friends” established through the cross-country and track programs — ones that helped push him through daily workouts.
Scheid said the thing he’ll likely miss the most from his time at Sunlake is the way he felt during hard practices — when running with his teammates was motivating, and made those difficult practices feel easier.
Liina Winborn’s pledge to the University of Florida marks the cross-country team’s first NCAA Division I signing in program history.
In her time at Sunlake, the decorated distance runner set several school records, claimed multiple conference and district individual titles, and earned fourth-place and sixth-place individual finishes the past two years at the 3A state cross-country championships.
With that, the two-time Sunshine Athletic Conference (SAC) East girls’ cross-country runner of the year and defending girls track runner of the year had trouble settling on her favorite memory as a Seahawk.
“It’s hard to pick one,” Winborn said, noting there were so many fun and funny moments.
Born into a military family, Winborn transferred into Sunlake as a sophomore from an international school in Belgium.
The school’s cross-country and track programs made the cultural transition easier — by offering Winborn an immediate peer group.
“The hardest thing was getting used to it and making new friends,” she said, “but having the team automatically gave me those amazing friendships that I know are going to last forever.”
The highly coveted athlete said she’s relieved to be done with the recruiting process, which ended when she signed the dotted line to become a Florida Gator.
“It feels amazing to finally not stress about it for one, but to have my future set and to be going to such an amazing school,” she said.
She also said: “I wouldn’t be going there without my team and my coach, and just everybody at Sunlake supporting me.”
Winborn received looks from other NCAA Division I programs, but it was Florida that ultimately stood out, offering her what she thinks are the best tools to be successful. She explained, “They personally told me they could take me as far as I wanted to go, athletic and academic-wise…and them saying that they could make that possible for me is bottom-line what I wanted to do.”
Sunlake athletic director Reesa Pledge at the ceremony said the group of distance runners “put Sunlake on the map,” adding, “their hard work and dedication has been unmatched by previous by runners that have been here at the school.”
Sunlake track coach Brett Hodros added he was “so proud” to see the distance runners’ efforts being rewarded in the form of scholarships.
“They were doing probably the hardest workouts in the track program,” he said, “because they were definitely putting in the most miles.”
Emphasizing that point, Hodros mentioned when he tries to pitch athletes around the school to join the track team, they question whether they’ll have to put in the same amount of time and effort as long distance runners.
Explained Hodros: “It’s very, very difficult to get people to run track first off, and then they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re not going to be make me run like those distance kids,’ and that’s what these kids did every single day, these four years they’ve been at Sunlake.”
Hodros also read prepared remarks from Sunlake distance coach Randal Reeves, who was unable to make the signing day event.
In a later telephone interview with The Laker/Lutz News, Reeves commended the scholarship recipients for their efforts, and for buying into the distance program.
Said Reeves, “These kids have been leaders amongst the rest of the group in getting everybody together to run as group, really year-round.”
Even more college signings could be on the way for other Sunlake senior distance runners before the year’s end, Reeves said. Eleven of his 12 seniors intend to run at the next level, either through scholarship or as walk-ons.
“The success of the program has really led to a lot of attention to our runners,” he said. “My job is to get them recruited, to put them in the spotlight so they can earn the college scholarship opportunities, where all that hard work pays off.”
Published February 12, 2020