Mandy Smelko figured she would be dribbling a basketball by now. After all, the Crystal River cross country team had not qualified for state since 1987.
But hoops will have to wait. Smelko's squad will be running in Saturday's Florida Finals, much to the delight of the senior captain.
"I really thought it was going to be the same as last year, that one or two might make it to regionals," Smelko said. "But I'm so excited we have such a good group of girls and we made it this far."
Teammate Holly Van Sicklen went out for cross country just to condition for soccer, the freshman having no idea she would help the Pirates make it to Tampa.
"It's so neat that we actually get to go this weekend and run with the best people in Florida," said Van Sicklen, who has run a team-best 20:07 this season.
At the beginning of the season, coach Laura Shirley asked the girls for their goals and expectations.
They all wanted to improve their times and get closer as a team, and a lot of them said they wanted to do well at districts and regionals and qualify individually for state. It was Shirley who said she would like the Pirates to qualify as a team.
"Not necessarily to go out and expect to win state because I didn't really see that as a reality, but just to take a whole team to state is what I was really hoping for," Shirley said.
That was accomplished Saturday, when the Pirates finished sixth at the stacked region meet, with Van Sicklen, Smelko and Denise Jay finishing in the top 20.
Last season, only Smelko and the graduated Rebecca Thielemann ran at regionals, and Jay was competing for Citrus.
After success in the 1980s, state seemed to be reserved for other area teams, Shirley said.
"It was always Citrus or Lecanto or Hernando and they deserve that recognition because they've had good teams for a long time and they still have great teams," Shirley said.
"But just to have Crystal River up there in the same category as they are is great."
Van Sicklen was a surprise coming in, and Shirley said Jay, a sophomore, did not have her heart in it at the beginning but has been a great addition.
Jay, who said she did not run at all over the summer, has the potential to beat Van Sicklen, according to her coach.
After starting with a 27:06 and dropping two minutes every time out the first few races, Jay recorded a season-best 21:08.
"My times have definitely gotten better," Jay said, crediting harder workouts.
Smelko (21:03), Stephanie Bodden (22:04), Sally Neill (22:45), Kate Thielemann (24:42), and Elizabeth DeRevere (25:06) have all been key contributors, although DeRevere has been plagued with injury.
The Pirates were ranked as high as 12th in the flrunners.com/FACA poll, and 14th in the final poll released Monday.
As the program's numbers have increased, so has the potential.
In 2000, Shirley's first year as coach, the Pirates did not have enough for a full team at any meet. The year before that, there was just one runner.
Shirley said she realized how good the squad could be at Sept. 14's Lecanto Invitational, where the Pirates placed second in a nine-team field. At last season's event, they were fifth of five.
"It's amazed me all season long how well they've done," Shirley said.
"Not to the point where I didn't expect it because they're all very talented. But when you go from the very bottom and work your way up, it's a slow process so you don't really expect for it to happen all at one time."
With only Smelko graduating, the Pirates should continue to improve.
Shirley said team members have already talked about wanting to attend camps and do conditioning during the summer. She will encourage those who are not going into other sports after the state meet to keep running.
"If we can get them all back out next year, I think they'll be a strong force," Shirley said.
For now, Smelko is happy that her focus is still on cross-country.
"I'm glad I'm finishing my senior year out as good as we're doing," Smelko said. "I'm really happy and proud of all these girls."
Kristen Leigh Porter can be reached at portersptimes.com or 564-3628.