The final race of the season is upon them. More than 50 North Suncoast runners will converge at Little Everglades Ranch this weekend for the biggest race of the season. The course is a wide-open grass track that welcomes the state's top talent. Runners have called the course intimidating and demanding, but they return to this pristine land testing the final climb like salmon swimming up-river. Today, we take a look at four story lines facing North Suncoast's best.
Coming off its first region title, how will the Wiregrass Ranch boys fare at state? Bulls coach Chris Loth said Wiregrass is going to "run free." He says without a dominant team in the race, five or six have a shot at the team title. The Bulls are in the conversation. "No one's talking about us," Loth said. "But we're seeded in that general area." The Bulls might be able to take advantage of training on the state course during the summer months. Loth said the team is quite familiar with The Green Monster — the final 200-meter climb to the finish line that eats up runners. "It's our home away from home," Loth said. "We won't let anyone pass us up the final stretch. Or we'll die trying." This race could be a launching pad for junior Ryan Pulsifer in terms of next season. "He has gotten progressively faster," Loth said. "It can only help him."
Mitchell junior Kelli Williams ran one of her best races to finish fourth at region. What can she use to her advantage? Mitchell coach Mitch Leavey said Williams had a credible race, now she needs an incredible race. One of the great backstories to Williams' success has been the unique relationship between her and Leavey. Every time Williams needs a boost, Leavey seems to be within earshot of Mitchell's top runner. "I know where she'll need the help and I get there," Leavey said. "That's where I'm going to be. That's why she says, 'When I need help he seems to be there,' it's not random."
Leavey sees three possible outcomes to Saturday's race: a dream, being realistic or having a "messed up" race. The dream is to break 19 minutes. Realistic is breaking 19:30. And "messed up" kind of speaks for itself.
The Wiregrass Ranch girls had a convincing 40-point victory at region. What's next? Bulls coach Don Howard has the girls aimed at a top 10 finish at state. "That's been their goal all season," Howard said. "If they all run their best race they're capable of finishing fifth or sixth. It will take (personal records) from all of them." The Bulls will arrive in style. Howard and Loth combined to rent a stretch Hummer limousine for the team, a debt paid for both teams claiming conference, district and region titles. So far, the girls have had a good week of practice. They're healthy. Howard said, "They want to be the No. 1 Pasco County team to cross the finish line." The limo picks them up at 6:45 a.m. sharp.
Land O'Lakes senior Matt Schwartz appeared to expend most of his energy to win region. Does he have anything left for state? Schwartz crossed the finish line first at region with a run of 16 minutes, 28.57 seconds. He appeared and sounded as if his best race were behind him. Land O'Lakes coach Kris Keppel says, not so fast. "I think he'll be fine," Keppel said. "I thought it was typical of what he normally does. I was at the 2.3-mile mark. That's when he passed people and took the lead." Schwartz has a goal of finishing in the top 10 at state, though anywhere in the top 20 will be a solid accomplishment. Last season, former Land O'Lakes star Felix Soto (now running at USF) finished 10th with a 15:58.
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 421-3886.