For the past half decade or so, Wesley Chapel's name essentially has been rubber-stamped in this category. Not anymore. Fledgling dynasty Wiregrass Ranch, loaded at the middle- and long-distance events (and pretty decent everywhere else), appears poised to end the Wildcats' streak of six consecutive Sunshine Athletic Conference titles. For the 1,600 and 3,200, the Bulls have defending SAC cross country champ Ariel Grey. For intermediate runs, they haveKelsey Sturman and Megan Ibison, third-place finishers at last season's SAC meet in the 400 and 800, respectively. And sprints? Senior Elyse Houston could be poised for a breakthrough final season. While acknowledging his team's lofty potential, second-year coach J.R. Haworth still sees four teams - the Bulls, Land O'Lakes, Wesley Chapel and Ridgewood - vying for area supremacy. "I think (the talent) is just kind of spread out more," Haworth said. "If you were out here 15 years ago, Land O'Lakes had everybody. Then, Wesley Chapel had everybody. Now I think it's just even between those four schools."
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Other girls teams to watch Wesley Chapel
Coach Kristi Frye's roster teems with talent, but it's just young. Frye has her pick of young sprinters and jumpers, but Jessica Furst is the only proven distance runner, and Frye could struggle to find points in throwing events. Watch for sophomore hurdler/high jumper Shaniqua Hill, poised for a breakthrough year.
Nobody maximizes available talent better than veteran coach Sue Vien, who returns sophomore Karissa Bertling, the defending SAC 400-meter champ who placed second in the 100. Elsewhere, junior Morgan Rasmussen could replace former teammate (and 2008 state champ) Keari Brink as the area's top pole-vaulter.
The Gators return a pair of sibling state qualifiers in Nicole (long jump) and Reta (shot put) Woodard. For distance events, coach Rock Ridgeway has a solid nucleus led by sophomore Alyssa Brandt, who posted the best time of any local girl (19:25) at last fall's state cross country meet.
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Top boys team
If nothing else, consecutive SAC titles have drawn more kids to Land O'Lakes' traditionally stout program. Veteran coach Al Claggett has 38 athletes, many of them proven point-scorers. Atop the list, naturally, is senior Felix Soto, who should end his career with no fewer than three more district titles and perhaps a state crown. This season, look for Soto to shine in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200, anchor at least one relay team and perhaps compete in the 400. "He'll do whatever we ask him to do," Claggett said. "He's a tremendous team leader." Junior teammate Matt Schwartz will collect distance-event points, while senior Zack Grunewald will be a legitimate conference (and, perhaps, state meet) contender in the pole vault. Watch for Grunewald's twin, Jeremy, a sprinter/hurdler poised for a breakout year after some tough breaks in recent seasons.
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Other boys teams to watch
For a change, the Wildcats aren't the hunted in the SAC, which coach Brian Colding doesn't mind. "It feels a little nice not to have the target on my back," said Colding, who won six consecutive SAC crowns from 2001 to 2006. To regain conference supremacy, Colding will need a bushel of points in the throws from siblings Kamran and Hunter Joyer. Kamran, a senior, was seventh in the shot put at last season's Class 3A meet. Mitch Wozniak and Jon Mahan are proven hurdlers, and Colding returns everyone from a 4x100 relay team that should own the event.
The Bulls will be contenders in every regular-season meet they enter, if for no other reason than their truckload of distance runners. Ryan Pulsifer, John Davis, Josh Reilly, Logan Selzer and Tyler Mattera are among those who will contend in the 1,600 and 3,200. Remember, the Bulls finished second to Land O'Lakes by a mere point at last fall's SAC cross country meet.
Three Sharks underclassmen - Howie Williams (high jump), Tony Roberts (300 hurdles) and Antwan Story (200) - qualified for the Class 2A state meet in their respective events last year. Brit Langley (100) and Wayne Tillman (long jump) won district crowns for a team that captured the District 9 team title. If those guys return and coach Ryan Wilson gets some runners from the state-qualifying cross country team, the Sharks again will be Hernando County's premier squad.
|Seeking a state sequel Local runners who qualified for state in 2008|
|Earon Hicks||Sr.||Wesley Chapel||10th in triple jump (3A)|
|Kamran Joyer||Sr.||Wesley Chapel||Seventh in shot put (3A)|
|Tony Roberts||Jr.||Nature Coast||Qualifier in 300 hurdles (2A)|
|Matt Schwartz||Jr.||Land OÕLakes||13th in 3,200 (3A)|
|Felix Soto||Sr.||Land OÕLakes||Top-10 finishes in 1,600 and 3,200 (3A)|
|Antwan Story||Sr.||Nature Coast||Qualifier in 200 (2A)|
|Howie Williams||Sr.||Nature Coast||Ninth in high jump (2A)|
|Mikayla Bogulski||So.||Central||10th in 800 (3A)|
|Danielle Doucet||Jr.||Nature Coast||Sixth in 400 (2A)|
|Shaniqua Hill||So.||Wesley Chapel||Qualifier in 300 hurdles, 4x400 relay (3A)|
|Jessica Jagielski||Jr.||Mitchell||11th in 800 (4A)|
|Mikaela Morolla||Jr.||River Ridge||10th in pole vault (3A)|
|Jamieshia Parker||So.||Zephyrhills||Eighth in 100 meters (2A)|
|Katherine Patton||Jr.||Zephyrhills||Fifth in discus (2A)|
|Tiki Relaford||So.||Central||Fourth in high jump (3A)|
|Nicole Woodard||So.||Land OÕLakes||11th in long jump (3A)|
|Reta Woodard||Sr.||Land OÕLakes||11th in shot put (3A)|
|Caitlin Young||Sr.||Mitchell||Fourth in high jump (4A)|
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Meets to mark down
Friday: Running of the Bulls, Wiregrass Ranch
March 6: Chasco Invitational, Gulf
March 13: Wildcat Fast Times Meet, Wesley Chapel
March 26: Kiwanis Invitational, Hernando
March 31: Suncoast Relays, Gulf
April 3: Sunshine Athletic Conference meet, Wiregrass Ranch
Joey Knight, Times staff writer