There's a reason the 2016 FHSAA state cross country meet is held at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee. It's certainly not because it's centrally-located in the state but the weather is cool, the city does a great job hosting it and it's a cross country runner's and spectator's dream. The course is two straight forward loops. Runners start in a grass field so wide there's no need battle for position out of the gates. Runners can take their time and file in at their own pace. The starting area opens up downhill before turning into the first loop. Runners close in on a mile over hard-packed sand before near-completion of the first loop where they hit, "The Wall", not an overly-intimidating hill but it serves to weed out the pack, especially on the second loop, just shy of three miles. To finish, runners run down the same grassy hill they started down, making for speedy and fantastic finishes.
That same dream course proved a nightmare to Bolles junior Caitlin Collier last year. In 2015, Collier was way out in front when her body shut down just yards before the finish line. Collier stumbled to the ground but could not re-gain her feet. Finally, she flung her legs across the line but by then Pine Crest's Alyssa Pujals had come across, leaving Collier in second place. The Bolles girls would go on to win that 2A state title over Pine Crest, making it their fourth straight. On Saturday, those fortunes flipped.
Gulliver Prep freshmen Natalie Varela got out to an early lead with Pine Crest freshman Tsion Yared and Melbourne Central Catholic senior Amanda Beach, closing up the lead group. Coming around the packed sand, after the one-mile mark, Varela had moved just a few strides in front. Then The Wall got Varela as the group moved in front over her going over it the first lap. Coming back through the starting area, heading into the second lap, those four all pulled even again. Then Collier made her move.
"This was a chance to show that I really can run those fast times," Collier said.
Coming back over the packed sand, near the two-mile mark, Collier put a nine-second gap between her and the Yared-Varela tandem trailing her. A second trip over the wall and the race was Collier's and this time she held her form and finished strong in 17:44.20, a season best.
"This (win) means a lot, I didn't want one bad race to define my high school career," Collier said. "It seemed like most of the courses I've run on this year were slower courses, I knew I was definitely going to PR here."
Yared took second in 17:59.49 and North Marion's Leigh Torino moved up into third (18:03.06). Yared's younger sister Mahdere, an eighth-grader, took seventh and teammate (and freshman) Maya Beleznay took eighth with Bolles' Allison Hajda in ninth but Pine Crest kept on as Simone Vreeland and Emily Faulhaber closed up the ranks and out-paced Bolles 29-50.
"We were runners up four years in a row," Pine Crest girls coach Paul Baur said. "We've been blessed year in and year out to be up there but for this young team to go and win it is amazing. I'm proud of these girls and thankful for what they've given."
(Photo courtesy of Coach Baur)
One senior, three freshmen and an eighth-grader made up Pine Crest's five scorers. Yeah, watch out for Pine Crest in the future.
The boys race saw the two best times across all classifications on Saturday. In a repeat of regionals, Dunbar runners shot out to the front to push the early pace only to fade quickly. Just into the first mile, they were out of the picture and a pack of seven with Bolles sophomore Charles Hicks, Lincoln Park senior Caleb Pottorff, Trinity Prep's Trenton Mandato and Satellite senior John Cacciatore leading it.
Over The Wall and out near 1.5 miles, the pack spread out and coming back down the starting area it was Pottorff and Hicks dueling downhill with Mandato in third. Near two miles, it was a two-man race between Pottorff and Hicks. Coming in for the finish, it was in just that order with Pottorff in first with a blazing 15:08.12. Hicks was a close second in 15:09.13.
"That was an insane battle (with Hicks)," Pottorff said. "We both wanted it and I knew (Hicks) had a great kick but that was just a lot of great runners to go up against, I couldn't wish for anything better than that."
Pottorff shattered his PR by 22 seconds. Hicks' time stood as the next best time across all classifications.
"When I first looked at some of the other times, it definitely made me feel proud," Hicks said.
Hicks helped push the Bolles boys into second place, edging third-place Satellite by just two points. Hicks called out teammate Chase Rivera (ninth in 15:54.74) for making states his first trip under 16 minutes. Team captain Christian Glover (12th in 16:01.98) hadn't broken a personal record in two years but shattered it by 40 seconds on Saturday. Hicks also mentioned it was the first time in 30 year the Bolles boys team made the top two.
Trinity Prep, behind Mandato's third-place 15:28.29. Patrick Salas, Trent Turbyfill and Preston Copenhaver sealed 15th, 16th and 17th to stack up a score of 50 and secure the team's fourth-straight title.