There was a time when the Land O'Lakes cross country program was barely a team.
There were no Felix Sotos, no Steven Bells, no Kristy Fullers, no Scott Habershaws.
No matter how well the Gators knew the swamps of central Pasco County, running well enough to qualify for state meets seemed as laughable as a Bigfoot sighting.
Take 1995, for example. Land O'Lakes hosted its second annual Gator Invitational. The girls finished fourth out of seven teams and the boys couldn't field a team.
Today, Land O'Lakes is among the state's top programs and could have its best overall team (boys and girls) since coach Kris Keppel arrived 16 seasons ago.
"The chance of both teams finishing in the top 10 at state are good," Keppel said. "Both teams peaked at the state meet. We ran very well. The majority of the meet, the kids ran personal bests. You want them to peak at state."
Keppel, who began running in 1987 in the Gasparilla Distance Classic, was determined to build a successful high school program even though he never ran in high school.
Along with Dan Coy, the duo formed the Land O'Lakes Roadrunners in 1993. The group began with fewer than 10 runners, and blossomed to more than 30 at its peak. The Roadrunners still exist today.
Back when Keppel was still learning about distance running, he read books to understand the sport's microscopic details. Though his knees had worn down, he knew he could help make other runners faster.
"I was calling other coaches and asking them questions," Keppel said of the early years. "I called (former Ridgewood coach) Glen Cable a couple of times. I found out about getting my kids in summer camps. We went to USF and to cross country clinics."
The breakthrough came in 1999 when the Land O'Lakes boys qualified for state after Keppel hosted his first region meet. Now the boys have become one of the state's perennial powers, having qualified for state four of the past five seasons. Leading the charge this season is senior Matt Schwartz. He is backed by juniors Hendrix Lafontant, Jake Morken and senior Zack Lonsway. The Gators' top four are capable of running faster than 16 minutes, 45 seconds.
The girls team had struggled with numbers, but its breakthrough came two years ago with a region berth. Last year, the Gators finished 12th at state and this year hope to be in the hunt for a top-10 finish.
The girls are led by seniors Renea Porsch and Morgan Keppel with stronger runners to round out the top five for better scoring. That's despite losing Alyssa Brandt and Nikki Forcier.
"Our girls will be better than last year's team because 3, 4, 5 are stronger," Keppel said. "They are always within 10 seconds of each other."
Izzy Gould can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 421-3886.
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Top returning girls
Ariel Grey, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: SAC champ was a district, region runnerup.
Kelli Williams, Jr., Mitchell: Rookie runner captured a 4A district title.
Jessica Furst, Sr., Wesley Chapel: State qualifier was third at SAC.
Renea Porsch, Sr., Land O'Lakes: Top returning runner for the Gators; ran 20:23 at Red Mule.
Morgan Keppel, Jr., Land O'Lakes: Pushing Porsch as No. 2; ran 20:52 at Red Mule.
Taylor Hixson, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: Bulls' No. 2 runner looking to break 20 minutes.
Kelsey Sturman, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: Returning No. 3 for Bulls, looking to improve on PR of 20:34.
Colleen McAuliffe, Sr., Gulf: Buccaneers' top runner ran 20:52 last year.
Alea Basulto, Jr., Land O'Lakes: Should be solid No. 3 runner for the Gators.
Jaclyn White, Sr., Springstead: Top Hernando County returner; ran 20:44 at Crystal River last season.
Top returning boys
Bruce Federico, Sr., Nature Coast: Tenth at 2A state meet; Sharks' top returning runner.
Matt Schwartz, Sr., Land O'Lakes: Gators' top returner; sub-17 minutes.
Hendrix Lafontant, Sr., Land O'Lakes: Gators' No. 2 runner also sub-17 minutes.
Ryan Pulsifer, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: Sub-17-minute runner leads the Bulls.
Logan Selzer, Jr., Wiregrass Ranch: Bulls' No. 2 runner.
Mason Chilmonczyk, Sr., Ridgewood: Ran 17:22 at Red Mule.
Mason MacKenzie, Sr., Central: Bears' top runner in the mid-17-minute range.
Kenny Fessel, So., Sunlake: Seahawks' top runner ran 17:21 in Bradenton last fall.
Anthony Plourde, So., Pasco: Pirates' top runner ran 16:55 at district last season.
Lane Miller, So., Gulf: Bucs' No. 1 ran a 16:59 at last year's district meet.
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Sept. 15: Wiregrass Ranch Stampede
Sept. 19: Mitchell Invitational at Starkey Park
Sept. 26: Zak Lukas Invitational at McKethan Lake Park in Brooksville
Oct. 2-3: Flrunners.com Invitational at Chain of the Lakes Park, Titusville
Oct. 3: Anclote Sharks Invitational
Oct. 10: Land O'Lakes Gator Invitational at Crews Lake Park
Oct. 13: Bear Run at Central High
Oct. 17: Pre-state meet at Little Everglades Ranch, Dade City
Oct. 24: Sunshine Athletic Conference meet at Ridgewood High
Oct. 29: Hernando/Citrus Classic at McKethan Lake, Brooksville