WESLEY CHAPEL — It was the cross country equivalent of a preseason game, with some teams holding back a little and at least one star holding out altogether.
Clearly, Monday evening's seven-team Wiregrass Ranch Stampede wasn't so much about building late-season hopes as it was building early-season confidence. And today, the boys and girls teams from the host school should be brimming with the latter.
The Bulls girls placed three runners among the top five to coast to a team victory; while the boys, boasting a roster larger than some local football teams, upset three-time defending champ Land O'Lakes — albeit with a mild disclaimer.
"It doesn't matter who won on Sept. 15," said Bulls boys coach Chris Loth, aware the Gators were running at a pre-determined pace the first 2 miles of Monday's race. "It matters who wins Nov. 1."
Wiregrass sophomore Ariel Grey and Land O'Lakes senior Felix Soto — the defending Sunshine Athletic Conference boys and girls champs — coasted to individual titles in a prelude to Saturday morning's prestigious Zak Lukas Invitational in Brooksville.
Soto, a legitimate Class 3A state title contender, trailed Bulls sophomore Ryan Pulsifer by roughly 15 yards through the first 2 miles before kicking into high gear and overtaking him about 110 yards into Mile 3. He finished in 17:00.62; Pulsifer in 17:26.01.
Soto confirmed coach Kris Keppel instructed his team to keep a moderate pace through 2 miles. "I was kind of happy when he said (to go all-out in Mile 3) because I don't know if I would've been comfortable (at a slower pace) all 3 miles," he said.
Grey finished the course — a 1-mile loop of parking lot, pasture and pond bank — in 20:56.58, well ahead of Wesley Chapel's Jessica Furst (21:41.94). Central sophomore Mikayla Bogulski, a track star competing in her first prep cross country race, was fourth (21:56.67).
Pasco senior Leeann Eble, a two-time conference champ projected as Grey's toughest local competition in 2008, was attending a dual-enrollment class at Pasco-Hernando Community College and didn't race.