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Runner stays on track close to home

Lee Stephens will run with the Bulls next season. As in the University of South Florida Bulls.

The Land O'Lakes High senior, who ran cross country and track, decided last week to continue both sports at USF.

Before opting for the local university, Stephens considered Florida State, Jacksonville University and Brevard Junior College in North Carolina. But he was swayed by $3,000 in academic scholarships and the chance to run close to his family's home in Land O'Lakes.

"I'm pretty excited," said Stephens, who holds the school record in the 3-mile run at 15 minutes, 26 seconds. "I'll still be around the people I know. Hopefully, they can watch me continue to improve."

That improvement surfaced in the state cross country meet last fall when the two-time Sunshine Athletic Conference Runner of the Year finished eighth in 16:02. As a junior, he placed 26th in 16:25.

Another factor in Stephens' decision is his familiarity with USF cross country and track coach Bob Braman, who organizes and runs 5K (3.1 miles) and 10K (6.2) races throughout the Tampa Bay area.

Stephens beat Braman, a Lutz resident, in the 1996 Lutz Independence Day Run. That left a lasting impression on both runners.

"He had an off-day," Stephens said. "He said he remembers the people who beat him."

Land O'Lakes coach Kris Keppel said Stephens was instrumental in building the school's cross country program.

"He and (1997 graduate) Lane Kunkel were kind of the backbone of the team," Keppel said, noting that the Gators boys cross country team went from four runners four years ago to 12 this season.

"(Stephens) led by example," Keppel said. "He was at every practice and he worked hard."

Stephens made his mark in track as well by setting an individual record and teamed with three others for another school record. He is the school's fastest in the 3,200-meter run with a time of 9:59 and shares the 3,200 relay record of 8:41 with Brad Winterroth, Shawn Peppers and Lane Kunkel.

Stephens feels he has a shot at breaking both marks in the post-season. Land O'Lakes competes in the district meet this Friday and participated in the conference meet last Friday, but results of the latter competition were unavailable at press time.

The Gators relay team is virtually intact from last season with Hannes Schill replacing Kunkel, who graduated last spring.

While Stephens enjoys running track, he is passionate about cross country. In fact, the sport and running for Land O'Lakes inspired Stephens to write a poem.

Lee Stephens' untitled poem

I remember four years ago when I first got up here.

Lane asked me to run cross country my freshman year.

Lane didn't like to run too far, but he loved to race,

and he always told me jokes till I was blue in the face.

Every day I'd see Mr. Keppel in the IMC,

and he'd say, "Look, it's that goofy freshman, Lee."

Then came my second year on the team,

the year Lane and I ran through the Hudson "stream."

The real beginning, however, came after this.

It's the memories from the last two years I'll mostly miss.

Before then it was just me, Lane and coach; now it was WE.

In fact, without this team I wouldn't be me.

Where would I be today if Chris had a clue?

Or if Jon hadn't said, "This week I'll beat you!"

What if Scott and Lane hadn't made me laugh?

Or if Brad hadn't been my smarter, cooler half?

If Mr. Keppel hadn't coached or Hannes wasn't my friend,

I'm sure every runner would pass me in the end.

If none of you ever run again, it was important to me

To be (on a team of friends) instead of just be.