WESLEY CHAPEL — For the past two seasons, Wiregrass Ranch’s girls cross country team expected to dominate. The results backed them up. The Bulls came through with conference and district titles and a 13th-place finish at state last fall. But Wiregrass Ranch begins the 2011 season with uncertainty after losing four of its top seven runners to graduation.
“Now we have to prove ourselves,” coach Don Howard said. “Now we have to see if we’re going to be a program or if we were just a good team for the last two or three years.”
The boys face a similar situation.
After finishing 10th last year in Class 3A, the Bulls lose four of their top runners, including Josh Reilly and Ryan Pulsifer, who finished first and second at district. Reilly was the St. Petersburg Times’ North Suncoast runner of the year.
“Once the holes are made, they realize they have opportunities for some of that same kind of success,” boys coach Chris Loth said of his current team. “We’ve got some good kids that are ready to run pretty fast.”
Ermias Bireda and Sam Hippely were key runners last year and will be expected to emerge as two of the team’s top athletes. Hippely’s younger brother, Andy, could contribute on the varsity team as a freshman.
Both teams have become the North Suncoast’s elite in only a few years. The girls open the season ranked 13th in Class 3A, according to FLRunners.com. The boys are No. 15.
Both coaches attribute their strong results to great athletes in the school’s first few years, which established winning programs and attracted more kids. The boys program swelled to 37 runners this year, while the girls picked up one of the area’s top athletes, soccer star Berlin Waters.
“The success we had early helped us get good athletes wanting to come be a part of the team,” Howard said.
Both teams were upset with their top-20 finishes at state last year and are hungry to improve this season.
Junior Nikita Shah and sophomore Elise Cedre said they’re confident their team can improve, even with the departure of four star seniors.
“It’s not all about the runners,” said Shah, who’s ranked among the top 20 runners in the state. “It’s about how hard we’re going to go, how hard we’re going to prepare for it. And we’re doing that.”
The boys and girls racked up hundreds of training miles over the summer. Boys practices included 6:45 a.m. sessions six days a week and a team-organized evening run on Sundays.
“No sleeping days,” Sam Hippely said.
The Bulls have the training regimen and potential to rank among the area’s best. The question is whether Wiregrass Ranch is building a cross country power or had a few lucky years.
“That, for me, is what has got to be determined,” Howard said. “We’ve got to see if those girls out there can step up and do what the girls did the last three years.”
Runners to watch
Tyler Ross, Mitchell: The senior is picking up cross country after placing seventh at state in the 800 meters last year. He’ll be one of the Mustangs’ top performers on a team that could contend for the conference title.
Travis Nichols, Land O’Lakes: Nichols was a second-team all-Sunshine Athletic Conference pick last year as a freshman. This year, coaches expect him to be one of the fastest runners in Pasco County.
Kari Grippo, Gulf: Flrunners.com ranks her as the ninth-best runner in Class 2A and the undisputed leader of the 12th-ranked Buccaneers.
Sept. 10: Ridgewood Invite
Sept. 17: Mitchell Invitational at Starkey Park
Sept. 24: Zak Lucas Invitational at McKethan Lake Park
Oct. 1: Gator Invitational at Crews Lake Park
Oct. 8: Anclote Invite
Oct. 14-15: Pre-state meet at Little Everglades Ranch
Oct. 22: SAC Championships at Crews Lake Park
Oct. 27: Hernando/Citrus Classic at McKethan Park
Oct. 31-Nov. 5: District meets
Nov. 10-12: Regional meets
Nov. 19: State meet