This weekend a couple thousand of runners, including many of the best in the state of Florida, will be headed to an out-of-the way ranch in dimly populated North Pasco County. Down the small dirt, wooden path they will venture, hoping their bus does not get stuck. And then finally over the railroad tracks, the woods open up and they will see it: the beautiful Little Everglades Ranch.
Some hate the course, some love it. But there is no denying it is one of the most beautiful spaces of authentic Florida that you will find. No tourists. No urban sprawl. Just a serene natural setting filled with the greenest grass, wetland ponds, blue herons and other water birds, along with a few hundred head of cattle!
2096 athletes and 80 schools are entered, coming from as far away as Key West and Fort Walton Beach. Some of them are perennial powers. Others are small but developing programs. All coming together for this preview of the season culminating state championship meet just over a month from now.
Here is your first look at the competition.
The gun goes off at 7:30am, just as the sun raises its sleepy head from its bed in the eastern sky. A month from now at the November state meet this same schedule often means cold and misty conditions for the first race of the day. We may see a little of that before the first race, but it should not be quite as dramatic as the effects will be at state.
The 23 team line-up looks like this:
Pope John Paul
Not to start out with a negative note, but let's get this out of the way first. Markedly missing from this girls elite race will be the four top individuals in the state. The four girls who have gone under 18 minutes this year (Ashley Brasovan, Kayla Hale, Brittany Koziara, and Nicole Carpio). They will be be the forces to look for when we return to Little Everglades in a month, but will not be competing in this preview meet.
So while those four notable individuals are missing, what is not missing are many of the top girls teams. This is going to be the best team battle we've seen so far this year. Why? Because we get to see the top two teams in the state go at it finally: Community School of Naples and Chiles. Two weeks ago we saw Community School whoop up on a stacked field at the flrunners.com Invitational 9. Some two hours up I-95 those at Bale-n-Trail saw Chiles whoop up on a stacked field there. That left everyone to try to calculate who the best really team is by pen/paper, virtual meet, or crystal ball.
There will be no guessing games as to who the best girls team in the state is after this weekend though. In a head-to-head virtual meet (which if you don't know is a cool feature on this site to see what happens in a dream match-up between any teams you like) Community School pulls it out by one point 27-28. They have nearly identical team averages this year (based on their season bests of the top five): 19:01.29 for Community School and 19:01.84 for Chiles. When we throw all of the teams into the virtual meet though it is exactly tied: 88 points each. The deciding vote comes down to the sixth runner, which Chiles has an ever so slight edge at. So basically it's anyone's guess!
The Bale-n-Trail course is perhaps the fastest legit course in the state and so those times probably gave a little more downward weight to the times of Chiles than Community School has had the benefit of this year. So with my prognostication hat on, I'd give a slight edge to Community School by an extremely mild point gap that could easily switch if someone has an off (or really on) day.
None of the preceding was meant to down play any of the other teams in this fight, just that it should be a two-way battle with the rest of the extremely talented lineup battling it out for third place.
Leading the way in that fight will be Winter Park. Who'd have thunk it? We knew Winter Park was going to be good this season—just not this good! Before the season, I asked Winter Park boys coach Mike Hill about his squad... he told me they'd do alright but who I should really look out for is the Wildcat ladies. I guess he was right.
Winter Park will start as the favorite for third place, over ever-potent Our Lady of Lourdes. Park is lead by Shelby Hayes, who if she has a good day could mix it up with the leaders. Backing Shelby up will be Maggie Emons, who will likely see the under side of 19 minutes. The virtual meet puts Winter Park up by 8 points over Lourdes and team averages have them at 19:17 versus the 19:23 for Lourdes. Two weeks ago at flrunners 9, Winter Park won out by just four points 99-103 over Lourdes.
But I think Winter Park could be vulnerable this week. Going into the year Christina Brea was set to be the Lourdes #1 runner. And then freshman Victoria Villarnovo stepped up and head the team early in the season. And since then Alessandra Valdes has taken over the ace position on the team. Here's the point: I think that top three of Lourdes are just now coming into form and we may see some more juggling of the order. They could really end up having 1-2-3 punch that even rivals that of Community School or Chiles. We could see that start to happen as soon as this weekend and if it does, Winter Park may not have the firepower to answer.
Bishop Kenny should sit pretty securely in the fifth slot and unless something dramatic happens probably will not contend with the top four teams. They are certainly deep, as their 19:32 team average illustrates. But right now they are scoring too many points up front—not including Sarah Davis who has had a great season. Lakeland Christian, Bolles, Satellite, and Wharton will be vying for the next positions.
Individually, Satellite senior Juliana Stern is the favorite. And that's not just because her 18:02 personal best two weeks ago at flrunners.com 9 is superior going in. Perhaps even more impressive was her 18:54 on the hilly Great American course last weekend—just four seconds and two places back from Brittany Koziara. This has really been Juliana's season. Coming from being number two on her team and finishing last season with an 18:50 PR at the notoriously fast McAlpine Park at Footlocker South, she is now the fifth best runner in the state after running an 18:02 only three meets into the year. It doesn't look like she's done cutting times off of her personal best so watch out!
Now back to this weekend, Juliana's main competition will come from Lily Williams of Chiles and Kathryn Fluehr of Community School. Stephanie Strasser of Fernandina Beach is probably going to run in this race also (her team is in the Small School division) and she could mix it up as well.
Williams is part of the fantastic freshman duo that has vaulted Chiles from being one of the top five or ten teams in the state to being possibly the best. After taking last week off, she could possibly break through and wreck Juliana's day with a win. She shocked everyone two weeks ago with a 40 second PR at Bale-n-Trail. Teammate Carly Thomas put up a time of 19:31 there.
Fluehr has maybe a better shot though at the upset. She has more big meet experience and also knows this course well. And this is a course that it pays to know. Go out too hard or attack too soon and the final incline leading to the finish will come back to get you. Kathryn's personal best time of 18:13 going came two weeks ago at flrunners 9 where she finished in 6th place just behind Stern. She is another story of an incredible breakout year. Last year at the state meet, she ran new season best pace and a time of 19:29. What a difference a year makes!
Stephanie Strasser, the Illinois import who ran 18:21 for 8th place at flrunners, could crack this group. The blonde-haired senior northerner probably has more hill experience than most in this group and that could serve her well. In Illinois they'd probably laugh at us Floridians for thinking Little Everglades as having a hill.
And for a wild card: Stephanie Schappert of Pope John Paul. She's got the genes and tenacity that have made me never under-estimate her!
Here's how the database calcualtes the results in our Virtual Meet Feature
Gun goes off at 7:50, the fog should begin to burn off by this time. The 27 team line-up looks like this:
Land O' Lakes
Pope John Paul
I need to start the boys race preview with no qualifications like I did with the girls. This one is going to be stacked. None of the top ten boys individuals (by season best time) are missing from this race. What a fierce one this will be!
Unfortunately, we have to keep talking about two weeks ago. It is the best preview of what is in store for us this weekend. Matt Mizereck (Leon), Brian Atkinson (Melbourne), and Will Stanford (Leon) were incredible at Bale-n-Trail (15:06, 15:07, 15:16). For comparison's sake, let's consider Bale-n-Trail about 15 seconds faster than Chain of Lakes Park (flrunners.com Invitational 9).
To be sure Atkinson and Mizereck will be favored going in for sure. Both won a state championship at this Little Everglades course last fall, going 15:30 and 15:43, respectively. Remember the drama at that meet of Mizereck coming charging up the final hill gaining and finally overtaking Eric Larsen who had become a victim of fatigue and that hill? Classic race.
Mizereck and Atkinson are likely to go at it back and forth this weekend just like they did at Bale-n-Trail. They are likely to have company though. Wehunt should be ready to mix it up with them and will no doubt be believe he can challenge them for the win. With our fifteen second adjustment it is Mizereck 15:21, Atkinson 15:22, Wehunt 15:25. And I wouldn't be surprised if that's just how it all ends.
Of course sitting back, almost undetected is Connor Revord. Remember him? Our cross country runner turned football player turned cross country runner again? It's easy to forget since Tampa Jesuit has been so quiet all year. Connor hasn't competed since the FSU Invitational three weeks ago, where he finished in second place to Wehunt (15:51 to Derek's 15:40). He is aching for the 2A state championship this year, a title that he has been favored for but has eluded him the last two seasons. Coach Greg Moran is no doubt making sure he is peaking for that one, but don't be surprised to see him test the top three today if he's feeling it.
Then there's Will Stanford. This scrappy sophomore has gone from being deep in Matt Mizereck's shadow to actually beating him earlier this season at the Lincoln Invitational. At Bale-n-Trail he challenged Mizereck and Atkinson early before the pace broke him a bit in the last mile (although not by much, they were just 10 seconds ahead).
Michael Wallace is the other one to look out for this week. He opened the season with a win at his home meet, Katie Caples Invite, with a time of 15:54. At Bale-n-Trail though many thought it would be a three-man battle. It was, but the three-man was Will Stanford instead of Wallace as expected. After that disappointing showing though, he had a big week at Great American. He finished in third place overall (first Floridian) with an impressive 16:00 time on a difficult and hilly course in Hoover, Alabama. Wallace will be ready to go and could finish as high as third (I don't think anyone will take out Atkinson or Mizereck, period).
Those are your favorites , but they should be anything but secure. There are a number of guys who could easily grab one of those top five medals from their grasps. Two young pups from Miami, Armando del Valle (sophomore, Columbus) and Elliot Clemente (freshman, Belen) could certainly be in that group. Del Valle finished 2nd at flrunners.com 9 with a time of 15:33 and Clemente was seven seconds back in that same race in 15:40. Clemente is kind of the underdog since he hasn't made a huge name for himself yet (since he's a freshman and hasn't won a major race yet). Del Valle, on the other hand, going into the year was considered by most to be one of the toughest in the state along with Mizereck, Atkinson, and Wallace. So no one will be surprised to see him up front.
Is that all? Nope. Mark Parrish will probably end up running as an individual (his team is in the Large School Boys) and will be in the mix (15:38 for third at flrunners 9). Erick Montoya (Estero), Felix Soto (Land O Lakes), and Joseph Dorfman (Belen) are likely to round out the top ten. Jordan Schilit of Tampa Jesuit will be will rested though and is dying to break out and make a name for himself, living in Revord's shadow thus far in his career. Trenor Wilkins is also coming along nicely as Coach Mike Boza's ace at Plant.
Dark horse: John Mitchell. It's no secret I'm a fan of this kid. Ever since I saw him outkick those Canadians in the 1600 at Disney last spring, I have liked his toughness. He definitely has the speed that if he's close look out. He's been nagged by some side cramps and other issues that have ailed him toward the end of the race—the miler is still adjusting to the 5K distance perhaps, still new to the sport despite being a senior.
Team-wise Belen Jesuit is the best in the state until proven otherwise. Their depth is impeccable. Their entire top seven finished at 16:30 with a 16:02 team average two weeks ago at flrunners.com 9. I am appealing for these guys to be listed in our MileSplit US national rankings. They are that good and this is their week to prove that once and for all. Running the virtual meet gives them a 79-115 victory over Miami Columbus. That's nearly the same point spread that they beat Columbus with at flrunners (47-85).
Columbus is looking like the next best team by a pretty good margin and they'll be fresh, having rested their varsity last week. The reason is that no other teams have seemed to be able to put together the 1-5 package like Belen and Columbus have. Their 16:13 team average, lead by Armando del Valle is very impressive. And so is their Gulesian sandwich 2-to-5 split of 32 seconds (Mark Gulesian is their second man and George Gulesian is their fifth). The virtual meet scores them 55 points in front of the next team...
Melbourne. Atkinson will score only one or two points, so that helps. James Post gives them a really good two-man and Erik Fagan keeps it close with the top three of Columbus and Belen. But the depth beyond that is not going to likely keep them from challenging for first or second on the podium. For those who might be confused, since Melbourne finished in third place behind Leon and Bishop Kenny at Bale-n-Trail... they were without Fagan then. Subtract another 15 points from their score (which Fagan would have done) and they would have won the trophy there.
On any given Saturday though anything can happen. Leon and Bishop Kenny, who finished 1-2 against at Bale-n-Trail, just a point apart (78-79), could certainly come through big. Leon has the big advantage of the best top two in the state with Mizereck and Stanford likely scoring less than 5 points collectively. They are both waited down enough at 4 and 5 though that it will be a long shot, despite Leon's 16:13 team average. Cross country is all about 1-5 splits!
Tampa Jesuit may also be a surprise contender. It's unlikely yet possible that they'll be able to upset the top two, but could certainly rob Melbourne of the third position. This year they've only had one major race—FSU Invitational—and they beat Leon soundly in that one 115-168. They've got a great top two in Revord and Schilit. We'll see what kind of shape the rest of their pack is in after taking three weeks off.
Here's how the database scores the results in our virtual meet feature
Small School Varsity Girls
Starts at 8:10.
Academy of Holy Names
Canterbury (Ft. Myers)
Clearwater Central Catholic
St. John Neumann
St. Pete Catholic
This is likely to come down to Creekside and Keswick Christian. Creekside has the edge with Kaitlin and Lauren Rodriguez leading the way up front. Keswick is lead by Hannah Palm.
Large School Girls
Starts at 8:30.
Flagler Palm Coast
Ft. Walton Beach
This should belong to Melbourne. I'm not sure why Melbourne is not in the Elite race, unless they are going to be missing some people. They should have no problem.
Second place is going to be a close team battle between Buchholz, Flagler Palm Coast, Ft. Walton Beach, Hagerty, Ridgeview, Timber Creek, Vero Beach, Sickles, and Northeast. Vero is likely to win out, if their team is in tact (leader Lauren Lapointe could be running the Elite race as an individual).
Small School Boys
Starts at 8:50.
Clearwater Central Catholic
St. John Neumann
St. Pete Catholic
Team battle should come down to Bolles, Hernando, Maclay, Nature Coast, Pine Crest, and Wiregrass Ranch.
Large School Boys
Starts at 9:10.
Flagler Palm Coast
Ft. Walton Beach
This is another one that is a little puzzling. Unless Timber Creek is missing someone they are the odds on favorite to win this one. They could definitely mix it up in the Elite race. Josh Peters is their leader with a 16:26 PR. Their 16:48 team average puts them well in front of the next best team in this very stacked second tier race.
The other top contenders include Buchholz, Brooksville Central, Flagler Palm Coast, Hagerty, Oviedo, Ridgeview, and Sarasota Riverview. Flagler or Oviedo are likely to lock horns tightly for the second place trophy.