A large group of runners sat in a circle, almost assembled as if they were warming their bodies around an enormous campfire.
In the center stood a boys team and a girls team, each representing Wiregrass Ranch.
There was still one more race, where they would run more as individuals than as a team. So soaking in this final group accomplishment was significant.
The Bulls were dominant throughout most of the regular season, validating their power by taking conference, district and region titles en route to the program’s best finish in its brief history.
“We have our goal to really repeat everything we did to the state level and to improve on our finish at state,” Bulls girls coach Don Howard said. “We want to win conference, district, region and finish top five at state.”
The girls appear poised to do just that, returning nine of the top 10 runners from last season.
Howard has increased their mileage and asked them to push themselves during short-mileage sessions.
“We’re running our quality workouts faster and we’re running quality workouts,” Howard said. “Instead of running a half-mile in 3:30, they are running them in 3:17.”
Last season, the best internal battle proved to be between incumbent No. 1 Ariel Grey and then-freshman Nikita Shah, who finished as the St. Petersburg Times’ North Suncoast Runner of the Year.
Shah had clearly overtaken Grey and battled back and forth all season with Mitchell’s Kelli Williams.
Now it appears the three will be vying for top North Suncoast honors, with Shah entering her sophomore season and Williams and Grey finishing their senior years.
Asked to comment on Grey’s neck-and-neck battle with Shah in the preseason, Howard said: “I attribute it to an improvement in Ariel’s focus. That’s what’s made them more even. Both girls will make each other better by running together.”
Also battling in the top five are Taylor Hixson, Alex Diepholz, Kelsey Sturman and freshman Elise Cedre.
“It’s intense but not antagonistic,” Howard said of the competition. “Our girls want to be in our top seven and be on that varsity team.”
• • •
The boys find themselves in a spot similar to the girls, and also return nine of 10 runners.
Bulls boys coach Chris Loth attributes the success to a solid core group of varsity runners year in and year out.
“Our goals are going to be consistent year to year,” Loth said. “We’re going to focus on winning conference, district and region. We want to stand on the line in the state meet ready to do really well. That’s why we train all summer and how we set up the program.”
So far, Wiregrass Ranch is banking on four runners separated by mere seconds. In fact, Loth said to expect his top four to finish within 10-15 seconds of each other.
So far, Ryan Pulsifer and Josh Reilly are “1 and 1A,” Loth said. Sam Hippely and Erimas Bireda are in the second tier.
The question then becomes who will be that fifth scorer, often a concern of top-flight teams.
“One through four is better than they were last year,” Loth said. “I don’t know who’s going to take the bull by the horns and be that fifth scorer.”
The guys vying for that spot are Logan Selzer, Ian Cassette, Tyler Mattera, David Hill and Matt Basin.
Loth said he expects one of the five to separate himself during competition.
“They’re close in ability and some have more experience than others,” Loth said. “There’s no clear-cut person who has separated themselves.”
Once that’s settled, Loth believes he has one of the top teams in Class 3A, with a chance to improve on last year’s sixth-place finish at state.
“We’ll be in a better position on the last day of the year than we were last year,” Loth said. “We’re seeded sixth in Class 3A. I think we’ll do better than that. I think we’ll be in the conversation in the last day. We’ll have to have our best day to win.”
Saturday: FACA Cross Country Classic at Plant
Sept. 18: Fourth annual Mitchell Invitational at Starkey Park
Sept. 21: West Pasco Invitational at Ridgewood
Sept. 25: Key West XCursion
Sept 25: Zak Lucas Invitational at McKethan Lake
Oct. 1-2: Flrunners.com Invitational 11
Oct. 2: Land O’Lakes Gator Invitational at Crews Lake Park
Oct. 8-9: Disney World Classic
Oct. 9: Anclote Sharks Invitational
Oct. 15-16: Little Everglades Pre-State Invitational
Oct. 23: Sunshine Athletic Conference Championship at Starkey Park
Oct. 28: Hernando-Citrus Classic at McKethan Lake
Nov. 1-6: District meets
Nov. 11-13: Region meets
Nov. 20: FHSAA finals at Little Everglades Ranch
Boys to watch
Ryan Pulsifer, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Anthony Plourde, Jr., Pasco
Joshua Reilly, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Hendrix Lafontant, Sr., Land O’Lakes
Logan Selzer, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Tyler Best, Sr., Gulf
Kenneth Fessel, Jr., Sunlake
Ian Cassette, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Kolby Watson, Sr., Ridgewood
Erimas Bireda, So., Wiregrass Ranch
Dillon Dunbar, Sr., Pasco
Sam Hippely, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch
Guillermo Ishida, Jr., Sunlake
Brendan McNellis, Sr., Sunlake
Jeff Vanatter, Sr., Nature Coast
Girls to watch
Nikita Shah, So., Wiregrass Ranch
Kelli Williams, Sr., Mitchell
Ariel Grey, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Taylor Hixson, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Alex Diepholz, So., Wiregrass Ranch
Aubrey Jones, Jr., Mitchell
Kelsey Sturman, Sr., Wiregrass Ranch
Natalie Smith, Sr., Gulf
Alyssa Lonsway, Jr., Land O’Lakes
Brooke Gonzalez, So., Land O’Lakes
Kari Grippo, So., Gulf
Renee Patnode, So., Gulf
Ashley Ford, Sr., Land O’Lakes
Melia Orrell, Jr., Central
Kailey Genrich, So., Springstead
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 421-3886.