TALLAHASSEE — The best cross country teams are efficient even in deep distress, and one usually forgets how difficult it is to run so far so fast.
The Land O’Lakes boys showed everyone how difficult that can be.
For 3.2 miles Saturday, they took themselves to the limit of human endurance at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee. They cramped. They staggered. They wilted. But they kept running until it was no longer a race but a test of will.
They did it because they were trying to complete the emotionally exhausting task of finishing in the top 10 at the Class 3A state meet for coach Chris Keppel, who was diagnosed with stage III pancreatic cancer and is undergoing six more weeks of chemotherapy.
The Gators accomplished their goal to place sixth, the highest finish among North Suncoast boys and girls teams.
Land O’Lakes and Niceville each had 200 points, but the Gators won the tiebreaker because their No. 6 runner, Austin Dotson, finished higher.
Initially, Land O’Lakes hoped to be in the top five. The Gators came close, with each runner trying to hang with the leaders, but a few were outkicked in the stretch, where everyone was just flailing and running as hard as possible.
“We were hoping to push to get a little bit higher, but that was a lofty goal,” Keppel said. “Overall, I’m happy. These guys have stayed focused and stayed together for so long they’ve been an inspiration to me with everything we’ve gone through.”
Keppel had a chemotherapy session Friday before driving up for Saturday’s state meet. He directed his runners while still wearing a pack filled with drugs he had to take.
“I didn’t know how well I’d do with the traveling and sitting,” Keppel said. “But everything has been positive. I’ve been blessed with a tremendous support group.”
This isn’t the first time the Gators had to deal with a serious illness. Last year, runner Steven Barnabei was rushed to the emergency room to remove a tumor in his head before the state meet.
Barnabei returned this season and played an integral role for the Gators in the postseason. On Saturday, he finished fourth on the team (90th overall) in 17:21.26 seconds.
Land O’Lakes’ top place winner was Tyler Stahl (eighth, 15:34.95). Teammate Travis Nichols was 14th (15:51.74), followed by Jake Poore in 18th (15:59.02).
“Other than wanting to run a little faster, I felt like I had my ideal race,” Stahl said. “I’m happy with how the team did, too, because we’ve gone through a lot.”
Gulf’s Kari Grippo was fifth (18:34.36) in the Class 2A state meet, the highest North Suncoast individual. Grippo nearly took third but was beaten by Jacksonville Bolles’ Mackenzie Wilson, who made a late surge at the finish.
“This was a huge race for me,” Grippo said. “I went out smart and was steady and motivated to do something.”
Springstead’s Amber Philpott was ninth in Class 3A in 18:49.14.
Photo: Land O'Lakes' Travis Stahl runs to an eigth-place finish. COLIN HACKLEY | Special to the Times