Tallahassee is a Distance Running Hotbed

There is a uniqueness to Tallahassee that separates it from the rest of the Florida when it comes to distance running.

Couple an extraordinary network of running trails, an active and supportive community track club, a county-wide middle school cross country program more than 300-strong with a collection of the state’s most accomplished coaches and you have the blueprint for sustained success.

You could make a compelling argument - without the benefit of lobbyists - that the Capital City is the state seat for high school cross country running, per capita, at least since 1997.

Over the past 11 seasons, Tallahassee schools have combined for 14 boys and girls FHSAA team titles and another nine runner-up finishes. That’s without taking into account the four boys individual champions since 2002, highlighted by last season, when the area came within one place of sweeping all three classification titles.

“We’re probably disproportionately advantaged,” said veteran Maclay School coach Gary Droze, whose Marauders have combined for 10 team titles and four runner-up finishes.

Those numbers could well improve on Nov. 22, when the FHSAA conducts its state championship meet at Little Everglades Ranch.

Saturday’s Region I 1A and 3A races at Tallahassee’s Miccosukee Greenway - in what could be the final race on the testy course - is the final qualifying step toward the state championship meet.

Arriving in Dade City healthy is the primary goal for the defending 3A state champion Leon boys, who are poised to repeat. Meanwhile, the Chiles girls are prohibitive favorites to capture their first state crown. Individually, there are a half-dozen runners with legitimate title-contention aspirations.

That’s quite a glut of present and recent distance running talent in a city of roughly 400,000 residents, which defies a single explanation.

A combination of variables have contributed to the deep well of runners who appear determined to extend the current era of excellence.

Leon junior Matt Mizereck is aiming to repeat as the 3A boys champion, and possibly become the first sub-15-minute runner over 5 kilometers in FHSAA history. His greatest challenge could come from sophomore teammate Will Stanford.

“When you win the state title as a sophomore (like Mizereck) that’s impressive,” said Chiles coach Scott Gowan, whose own boys program has won three state team titles and finished second twice of the past five seasons. “And Will is number one on any other team in the state of Florida, except the one he’s on.”

North Florida Christian’s Whitney Strickland, runner-up a year ago, has the 1A boys title in his sites.

On the girls side, Chiles freshman Lily Williams boasts the fastest time this season in 3A, while her classmate Carly Thomas sits third. Maclay’s Jana Stolting should be in the thick knot of contenders among 1A girls, which also happens to be the deepest and most competitive classification individually.

Beyond the team and individual title contenders, the Maclay boys are eyeing a top-three finish, with Patrick Swain, Austin Stevens and Connor Sweeney vying for a spot on the medal stand. Maclay’s Shelby Salimone could also finish among the top 15 girls in 1A, while Chiles’ Kaia Hampton and Kendall Andrews have spent the entire season among the top 10 3A girls.

“There are probably more young, strong, girl runners now (in Tallahassee) than any time since I’ve been here,” said Gowan, who brought a state boys championship from Port St. Joe with him to Chiles more than a decade ago. “We’ve been blessed to have a few of them.”

It’s a depth of talent that crosses genders and sets the current era apart from a storied, but limited, past.

Leon coach Andrew Wills was a part of that past. A state cross country runner-up in ‘81, he had followed in the footsteps of his ‘76 title-winning brother Herb Wills. Each competed for the Lions, where their mother, Marilyn Willis, coached the girls to five state team and four individual titles. Her Leon boys finished second twice, but also claimed three individual championships.

“In the late 70s, Leon was it,” Andrew Wills said, summing up the local scene. “The depth (now) is probably there because there are more schools with good programs; more teams, more people (and) probably more coaches that care.”

Gowan added: “We’ve all found some kids that were willing to commit to what we ask them to do.”

Of course, it doesn’t hurt to be in an environment that fosters running.

“I don’t think it would be accurate to ascribe this (growth and success) to one incident,” said Droze. “Without sounding cliché, there was kind of a synergy there.”

The area’s Spanish moss-laced trails, rolling hills and temperate climate annually draw some of the nation‘s elite runners during the winter months, where they are often looked after by members of the well-established Gulf Winds Track Club. The club is also the community’s strongest proponent for fostering running among the young in the community, offering financial and manpower assistance to the promote of the sport.

Droze said the “good linkage” between the GWTC and the local schools sets Tallahassee apart, and that’s hard to argue, when more than 300 runners from nine public middle schools turn out to compete during their abbreviated season. More than half of that total run for Raa and Deerlake middle schools, which feed Leon and Chiles.

The middle schools help tremendously because they give the (high school) coaches names of kids who might be interested,” said Wills. “The pool is probably deeper with kids you know have talent. Before, there weren’t people introduced to running at that age. They were playing other sports. … The talent is more visible now.”

In terms of public visibility, the exposure Florida State’s three-time defending NCAA track program and 2008 Godby High grad and multiple state champion Joe Franklin gained, hasn‘t hurt either.

“It’s a luxury to open up the newspaper and read about runners,” said Droze.

That’s a luxury Marilyn Wills never enjoyed as the Leon coach. She remembers being rebuffed by the local newspaper when calling to inquire whether she could get a picture of her 1989 girls team published after capturing a third consecutive state title.

Perceptions have changed.

“When you win championships, kids want to be part of it,” Andrew Wills said.

Talent breeds competition, and when you cross that with outstanding coaching, the state’s most challenging topography, an unmatched network of trails and a strong support system, Tallahassee’s results speak loud and clear.