Hard to believe at the start of the 2021 cross country season to find Amber Schulz of Timber Creek in the position that she finds herself in this week as not only the defending state champion set to race, but the odds on favorite to win the 4A girls race. There was a lot of doubt and questions coming into this season on what kind of runner that Schulz would be.
Despite being last year's state champion, the senior Schulz has been an underdog story to root for all season coming back from not only an injury that forced her to sit virtually the entire 2021 outdoor season but also overcoming a battle with an eating order earlier in high school that she has publicly opened up about and shared her story with others to inspire.
The High Point University commit has been nothing both rock solid this season competing in a total of 10 races this season compared to only 4 last year including 8 races in the 18 minute range. The only two races over 18 minutes were in situations with Schulz actually holding back and pacing teammates with the Timber Creek girls as a possible state meet podium squad.
Her season-best time of 18:15 leads all of 4A, which she has run the time twice including at the 4A Region 3 Meet last Saturday in Kissimmee. She won the 4A state title last year at Kissimmee in 18:26, which she was only four seconds off that time at the FSU Pre-State Invite last month. Regardless of the outcome on Friday, Schulz's comeback to racing this season and at a high level has been an inspiration to all.
Nearly a handful of challengers will be in the mix though with Schulz for the 4A state title including Olympia freshman Emily Knopfle, Buchholz junior Kate Drummond, Miami Coral Park senior Penelope Sosa, and Wharton senior Brooke Reif.
Sosa is the only one among the bunch who has celebrated an individual state title like Schulz in the group. She was the winner of last May's 4A girls 3200 state race in a 10:41 PR. After missing the first month of the cross country season due to illness (coronavirus), Sosa has been racing strong in her limited season that started with a season debut and fourth-place finish in the Race of Champions at the flrunners.com Invite.
She finished just 12 seconds off Schulz as the second-highest 4A finisher (10th place) in the Elite race at the FSU Pre-Invite as well with a 5K PR of 18:42. One of South Florida's fastest, Sosa was able to hold back and cruise to slower winning times at both her district (20:30) and regional (19:22) meets in Miami to save up for a harder effort at the state meet.
Could a freshman take the state title? All Olympia ninth-grader Emily Knopfle has been doing is winning races as of late including a slight upset at the 4A Region 1 race against Buchholz's Kate Drummond on her home course at Santa Fe College in the rain and mud. Knopfle was the fourth-best 4A performer at the FSU Pre-State Invite last month in 12th place with a time of 18:48 in the elite race, which was 18 seconds off Schulz and 6 seconds off Sosa.
One could argue that she has only gotten faster and stronger since Pre-State including an 18:36 PR win at the Metro Conference Champs in the West Division race. Schulz ran on the same course and the same day in the East Division race with a winning time of 18:15. Coming from a triathlete background prior to high school, Knopfle did not mind all the rain and water at the 4A Region 1 Meet in Gainesville on Saturday to gap Drummond by 11 seconds for the win in 19:09.
Speaking of Drummond, the regional runner-up finish to Knopfle was only her second loss of the season since taking second place at Bale-N-Trail behind only a strong 2A state title favorite Jillian Candelino of Bolles. Count on a bounce-back performance after a defeat. Drummond has been one of the most vastly improved runners from last cross country season, when she did not qualify individually or with her team for the state meet. She closed her outdoor season with a pair of PR's in the 1600 (5:00) and 3200 (11:10) to foreshadow a breakout fall though.
Drummond put everyone on notice to start the season when she won the loaded Cecil Field Summer Classic in late August with 5K personal best then of 18:39. The victory proved to be no fluke with Drummond also scoring more major invitational wins at the Katie Caples Invitational (18:50) and Bobcat Classic (18:35 PR). She was unfortunately under the weather and did not race at FSU Pre-State Invite to get a chance to match up with the likes of Schulz, Sosa, and other top girls in 4A but returned back to good health in time for the district meet.
The junior is also the front runner for the state title team favorites in Buchholz, so she will have to juggle her individual state aspirations with making sure that she safely secures a low scorecard for her squad as well.
The fourth regional champion in the 4A Region 2 winner Brooke Reif of Wharton can certainly race up and find her way with the top pack of girls including the other 3 regional champions. She was the third highest 4A finisher at the FSU Pre-State Invitational's elite race with an 11th place effort of 19:45 wedged in between Sosa (10th) and Knopfle (12th). Believe it or not, Reif did not win her first race of the season until October 9th in taking the Hillsborough County title after recording three runner-up finishes in major invitationals in September.
The University of Richmond commit has broken 19 minutes in four races this season including twice running her PR of 18:42. Reif comfortably won the 4A Region 2 Meet title at Holloway Park by a whopping margin of 39 seconds in 19:01. She finished 31st in last year's 4A state race in 20:04 and should blow that performance and finish out of the water on Friday in a return to the FHSAA State Finals.
Beyond our top 5 ranked runners, the next group of runners to watch include several girls who have really stepped up with their performances in the last few weeks.
Flagler Palm Coast's Jada Williams had back-to-back impressive races at the district meet behind Drummond and region meet behind Knopfle and Drummond including an 18:46 5K PR at New World Golf Course for her district race in the rain. Williams was also the Five Star Conference champion this fall prior to her district meet race, which comprises schools of Flagler and Volusia counties. Williams is a returning All-State performer in cross country after finishing 10th in the 2020 state race.
Boone's Megan Dolan recorded a 23 second time drop to finish runner-up behind Amber Schulz (18:15) at the 4A Region 3 Meet in an 18:38 personal best performance. Her prior season-best was 19:01 from the Metro Conference Champs race when she was gapped by a much greater margin by Schulz (18:15) as the race runner-up to show her closing the gap on the top girls in 4A.
The Georgia Tech commit Grace Marston was the 4A Region 2 runner-up behind only Reif in 19:41 and is capable of running much faster with an 18:51 season-best and PR from the North Port Invite earlier this season. Marston has some of the fastest track PR's in the field as well including a 4:58 1600 and 10:53 3200 from last spring. Marston is the sixth-highest returnee from last year's 4A state race (12th place).
Another runner capable of running much faster than her regional performance is Newsome senior Kendall Hughes, who has taken over as the lead runner for state champion or podium finishing hopeful squad in the absence of Megan Wells. Hughes ran a time of 19:42 for third place and just behind Marston in the 4A Region 2 Meet at Holloway Park.
On the same course for the Race of Champions at the flrunners.com Invite, Hughes ran arguably her best cross country race ever with a third-place PR finish of 18:58. If she can muster up a similar performance at the state meet then she could possibly run down some of the higher-ranked runners in the end with her 2:16 800 meter speed.
Rounding out our list of top 4A girls individuals to mention is Celebration's Catalina Edwards, who posted a sensational PR time of 19:01 to finish third in the 4A Region 3 Meet behind Schulz and Dolan. Edwards has finished no worse than fourth in any of her races this season and her lone victory of the season came in becoming the Orange Belt Conference Champion.
4A Girls Top 10 Individuals To Watch
1. Amber Schulz (Timber Creek)
2. Emily Knopfle (Olympia)
3. Kate Drummond (Buchholz)
4. Penelope Sosa (Miami Coral Park)
5. Brooke Reif (Wharton)
6. Jada Williams (Flagler Palm Coast)
7. Megan Dolan (Boone)
8. Grace Marston (Lakewood Ranch)
9. Kendall Hughes (Newsome)
10. Catalina Edwards (Celebration)