Land O'Lakes girls, Wiregrass Ranch boys take county cross country titles
In Saturday's Pasco County Cross Country Championships, formerly the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet, the Land O'Lakes girls and Wiregrass Ranch boys prevailed.
The Gators, led by freshman Natalie Abernathy, topped host Wiregrass Ranch 34-48. The Bulls boys, meanwhile, edged Land O'Lakes 41-44 with Joey Salerno taking second place. Underclassmen took the top individual spots on both sides with Abernathy winning the girls title and Welsey Chapel junior Dominic Moreno winning for the boys.
Runners started down a grass field before circumnavigating a pond on the southwest side of the school, then circling back and taking a big lap around the football field, baseball field, practice field and school, finishing around the pond. One more full loop and runners finished down the same grass field and into the stadium for about a half lap around the track before the last 40-meter straightaway.
From the first loop around the pond, it was Sunlake sophomore Jamilla Cardwell and Abernathy out front with Wesley Chapel's Amber Maxwell trailing in third. Around the 2-mile mark Abernathy made her move.
"I started to pick it up and really sprinted it," Abernathy said. "I remember running against (Cardwell) in the 1,600 meters during middle school, so I knew I needed to pick it up at the end. That's where you get your placement."
Through the second trip around the school and third around the pond, Abernathy was all alone and slammed through the finish line in 19:26.2. Cardwell took second in 19:59.6 for her first time under 20 minutes in just her first year of running cross country.
"I just wanted to try and stay with Natalie, but at about the 2-mile mark is where I lost her," Cardwell said.
Mitchell's Leah Thompson grabbed third in 20:29.7. Maxwell settled into fourth at 20:38.1. And Brenna Moran of Wiregrass was fifth in 20:51.7. For Land O' Lakes, Emma Skantze took sixth, Isabella Brown seventh, Kelly Hutson 10th and Lindesy Weilant 13th to help the Gators clinch the team title.
"Last year, we knew (the county title) was within our grasp. I told the girls (on the bus after the 2014 county meet) that next season starts now," first-year coach Meredith Keppel said. "Hats off to (Wiregrass). They are definitely a strong program and we were definitely scared. The virtual meet had Wiregrass winning by one point. We weren't concerned about times today only places."
For the boys, Salerno took the early lead with Moreno hot on his heels and they stayed out front for the entire race. Moreno clipped Salerno at the line to in 16:42.9. Salerno was right behind him in a personal-record 16:43.8. Moreno set his season best on Saturday and credited his coach John Hoffman for designing the critical workouts that led up to the race.
"(Salerno) has always been ahead of me at meets. I was hoping to keep close to him and then beat him on the kicks," Moreno said. "(Around the pond for the final approach), it felt like hell. My legs were burning; I was about to collapse. The adrenaline and the crowd carried me."
Land O'Lakes' Josue Arandia had third locked up until a late charge by Gulf freshman John Jessup. Arandia held for a 16:55.2 but Jessup was right there in fourth at 16:55.6. The Gators' Alex Normandia was fifth in 17:02.6. For champion Wiregrass, Christian Suriel finished seventh, Donald Swartz ninth, Kevin Jaquez 10th and Ethan Dodzweit 13th.
"(The rivalry with Land O' Lakes) pushes us all to be better, myself included," Wiregrass boys coach Chris Loth said. "We've been playing second-fiddle for the last three years, and we have four seniors in our top eight that have never won a county title. They didn't want to go out being second in the county."
Loth was quick to highlight Suriel's performance. Hip issues have kept him from top form and Saturday was his first "full-strength" day.
"For him to score single-digit points for us was phenomenal; we don't win the team title otherwise," Loth said.
The Keppel Courage Awards also debuted Saturday. They were given to the male and female runners who embody the "drive to finish the race, keeping the faith and never giving up," hallmarks of the late Kris Keppel, Land O'Lakes' longtime coach who died in January after a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer.
The girls award went to Wiregrass Ranch's Rachel Baber, who endured emergency surgery in 2014 (the nature of the surgery was not disclosed), then etched a top 25 time to rank in Bulls program history this year. The male recipient was Wesley Chapel's Aaron Klingebiel, who underwent several surgeries and months of hospital stays battling brain cancer but competed Saturday in the JV race.