LAND O’LAKES — A day before the Land O’Lakes’ cross country team ran its biggest race of the year, the Gators had a stop to make.
The runners got the news the week before, just after they wrapped up a third-place finish at districts. One of their top five runners, junior Steven Barnabei, was in the hospital after undergoing emergency brain surgery to remove a tumor.
By Friday, Barnabei was home recovering, and the Gators wanted to see him before the Class 3A, Region 2 meet.
“He is still with us as a team member,” coach Kris Keppel said.
Barnabei has been cleared by doctors to travel, not compete, in Tallahassee on Saturday, when Land O’Lakes runs in the Class 3A state meet.
Barnabei’s initials adorn his teammates’ uniforms. The depth he helped form has been responsible for getting his teammates back to state with last week’s fifth-place finish at regionals. And his absence on the course will fuel the remaining Gators, who are trying to improve on last year’s 21st-place finish at state.
“I think with him being gone, it’s maybe even sparked more of a fire in some of the kids to run faster and try to make up for him and do it for him,” junior Travis Nichols said.
Though no teams are equipped to deal with the emotional toll of losing a captain and confidante, Land O’Lakes has been able to adapt well to the on-course challenges without a runner who placed 14th at last month’s conference meet. Barnabei’s leadership and speed helped form a deep lineup that’s continued to grow in his absence.
The Gators have had 10 runners clock times below 18:30 this year. The push for the top seven spots has been intense since summer workouts, making the team one of the deepest Keppel has had in his 19 years as head coach. That’s one reason Land O’Lakes has been able to overcome the loss of Barnabei to make it to state a fifth consecutive year.
“Really it’s been infectious to push each other,” Keppel said. “I think it’s the first time, they know they need to come to practice in order to get better.”
Land O’Lakes figured to be strong this fall after returning six of its top seven runners, including a key nucleus of juniors. Nichols took 16th at state in cross country and the 3,200 meters in track last fall before finishing third at this year’s region meet (16:09). Tyler Stahl was the runnerup at the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet, and Jake Poore finished sixth at districts this year. Seniors John Pace and Dillon Oergel also placed in the top 40 at districts.
But the Gators didn’t expect the contributions from some newer runners to be so strong. Freshmen Austin Dotson and Nathan Abernathy and sophomore Kyle Honn have contributed with times below 18:30.
“That wasn’t so much of a surprise,” Stahl said. “We knew they were going to be good, but we didn’t know they were going to be that good.”
That infusion of young talent has been a key part of Land O’Lakes’ string of success. The Gators have had at least one runner make state every year since 1997.
Fast individuals have led to fast teammates and a close-knit bunch that trains hard.
“They know what’s expected of them,” Keppel said.
What’s expected Saturday is an improvement from last fall, maybe a top-15 finish, and continued progress to next season, when the Gators will aim for the top eight — and hopefully the return of Barnabei to the lineup.
State cross country
When: Saturday. The Class 2A girls race kicks things off at 8 a.m., with another race every 25 minutes. The Class A boys will run last at 10:55 a.m.
Where: Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee
Admission: $9, free parking
North Suncoast teams participating: Gulf boys and girls, Land O’Lakes boys, Nature Coast boys and girls, Wiregrass Ranch boys and girls
North Suncoast individuals participating: Mitchell’s Claudia Cancello and Ridgewood's John Eckles
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.