NEW PORT RICHEY — Gulf sophomore Kari Grippo entered the season with high expectations for her first year of high school cross country.
As the season wore on and Grippo racked up wins, the goals continued to grow to heights few would have expected four months ago.
“Over the summer, I was just saying to myself, ‘Wow, if I could be in the top 10 at state, I’d be happy,’ ” Grippo said. “Now it’s like if I could be runnerup or top three, that’s great for me.”
Aspirations are up for the rest of the Buccaneers, too. Gulf’s times lagged behind some competitors early. As opponents used workouts to focus on speed, the Bucs valued distance.
The slow and steady training eventually paid off. Gulf’s top five runners have dropped their average times from 23 minutes to around 20:40. The Bucs finished second at last week’s Class 2A, Region 2 meet — two points behind Bishop Moore — to qualify for Saturday’s state meet at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City.
“It’s always hard to tell at the beginning of the season because you don’t know if they’re going to make that leap forward like we did,” coach Dean Lofton said.
Grippo led the leap into contention.
The longtime soccer player started running during eighth grade when a track coach saw her speed on the field. She broke the middle school’s record in the mile and 800 meters in her first race and hasn’t slowed down.
“She’s just got a lot of natural talent,” Lofton said. “On top of that natural talent is just a tremendous work ethic.”
Grippo was ruled ineligible by the Florida High School Athletic Association last year after transferring to Gulf for its Health Careers Academy. In her first year on the team, Grippo won the district meet by almost two and a half minutes and took the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet title by 34 seconds. After finishing runnerup at the region meet, Grippo could vie for Gulf’s first top-two finish since Aimee Lund in 1989.
“It’s just a big surprise,” Grippo said.
The Bucs’ season has been full of surprises.
Sophomore Mia Savino went from a dominant runner in middle school to alternating between Gulf’s sixth- and seventh-best runner as a freshman.
Savino has emerged as the team’s No. 2 runner this fall and placed eighth at regionals. She has already sliced two minutes off her times and is gunning for a sub-20-minute result at state.
“I would have never thought coming into the season that I’d be there now,” Savino said.
Others are also showing major gains. Judith Young and Eliza Godza shaved more than three minutes off of their times. Senior captain Rachael Patnock missed a month because of shin splints caused by wearing the wrong shoes but returned to become one of the team’s top contributors.
Their collective improvement has vaulted Gulf from a solid team to one with a good chance at its first top-10 finish at state since 1996.
“It feels good to be one of the best known teams,” Savino said. “It’s really nice to be known as one of the top dogs.”
State cross country
When: Saturday. The Class 3A girls race starts first at 8:30 a.m., with the Class 2A boys closing out the meet at 10:50 a.m.
Where: Little Everglades Ranch, Dade City
Admission: $9; parking, $10 per vehicle
Other area participants
Wiregrass Ranch: Placed second at 3A-2 regionals behind individual runnerup Nikita Shah.
Claudia Cancello, Mitchell: Finished 11th at the 3A-2 region meet.
Samantha Martinez, Ridgewood: Placed 10th at 2A-2 region meet.
Victoria Baker, Pasco: Took 15th at 2A-2 region meet.
Nature Coast: Won the 2A-2 region meet behind top-four finishes by Cody Van Natter and James Harkless.
Parker Steinkamp, Hernando: Placed eighth at regionals.
Gulf: Qualified as a team by finishing sixth. Nick Buliga placed a team-best 12th.
Wiregrass Ranch: Won the 3A-2 region meet, with Samuel Hippely and Ermias Bireda fourth and fifth, respectively.
Land O’Lakes: Travis Nichols’ bunch advanced to state by finishing sixth at regionals.