Caroline Wells could have made it a jog in the park at Apalachee Regional Park for her final high school cross country race in Florida as the overwhelming favorite to repeat as the FHSAA 3A state cross country champion. However, the all-time great distance runner wanted to make more history and be the fastest ever at a Florida high school cross country state meet.
The Winter Springs senior Wells set a torrid pace from the gun hitting the one-mile split in 5:10 and two-mile mark in 10:46. The Stanford signee was the course record holder already at the venue from her 17:10 victory at the FSU Pre-State Invitational in mid-October.
She chopped 14 seconds off that race on Friday at the state meet becoming the first high school girl to ever break 17 minutes on the course with a 16:56 record-shattering run. The performance was just off Jenny Barringer Simpson's 16:55 state meet record from all 5K venues in the meet history from a 2003 Ed Radice Park state meet race in Tampa. The performance by Wells certainly ranks better than Simpson's race at Ed Radice or any other considering the degree and difference of course difficulty found at Apalachee Regional Park.
Friday was just another chapter to add to the legendary story that Wells has written for herself including state records at 3200 meters (10:08), 5K for cross country (16:40), 5K for track (16:16), and Florida's second-fastest mile all-time (4:42).
History was also made for the team championship as the Ponte Vedra girls won their program's first-ever state title in cross country (boys or girls) with a team score of 114 points and a team average of 19:35. Despite finishing fifth in last year's 3A state race, Ponte Vedra girls were not expected to make this kind of leap to start the season after losing several key runners (#1, #2 and #5 runners graduated) from their top seven a year ago.
However, an infusion of young talent including a pair of freshmen and a trio of sophomores coupled with the return of senior Ellie Moritz (22nd in last year's state meet as their #3 runner) started to come together mid-season with a signature victory at the Katie Caples Invitational edging out the eventual 4A state champions Buchholz and a quality field behind them.
A star front runner emerged for them the next meet in their freshman Sofia Bushkell when she won the New World Fall Spectacular with a stellar time of 18:17. The team would then show how elite they truly were at the FSU Pre-State Invitational's elite race when they finished third in the team field behind only the state's top two ranked teams in Cambridge Christian and Bolles School.
The Pre-State Meet typically serves as a great opportunity for squads to match up against teams that they will be competing with at the state meet, but for 3A state title hopeful, Ponte Vedra that did not necessarily happen as the other two top contending teams for the 3A girls team title were not present at the meet in Osceola and Our Lady of Lourdes Academy.
Despite being the fastest team on paper albeit benefiting from racing on some faster courses this season including New World Golf Course in Jacksonville, Ponte Vedra knew that the team race could be a lot tighter which certainly ended up being the case on race day from the Osceola squad from Seminole.
Despite being under the weather going into the meet, star freshman Bushkell still gutted up a strong top 5 individual fifth-place finish of 18:34 to lead the Ponte Vedra girls. Bushkell might have been a state runner-up with better health, but certainly has a promising future to compete for future state titles after Caroline Wells graduates to open the doors for others in the 3A classification.
Joining her on the All-State top 15 individual podium for awards was senior teammate Moritz grabbing the last top 15 spot in a time of 19:17 for fifth place. Their remaining top 5 finished all inside the top 50 places with a trio of underclassmen in sophomore Amelia Tackling (29th, 19:52), freshman Daisy Ross (33rd, 20:01), and Lindy White (20:12).
The back end of the top five won the state meet for the Ponte Vedra girls as Osceola actually had the advantage thru three runners at 42-44 over Ponte Vedra. Osceola found itself in a good position thru three runners after placing three runners among the top 20 places with All-State finisher Abigail Clements (13th, 19:13) and teammates Kennedy Downey (17th, 19:25) and Andrea Ballestero (20th, 19:33) for Osceola. Avery Latto (39th, 20:03) and Heloise Pinto (60th, 20:27) finished out the scoring in the #4 and #5 spots but was not enough to take down Ponte Vedra finishing as the runners-up after a good run with 130 points.
With the top 2 state meet podium teams for 3A girls only graduating one runner from their varsity lineups with #2 Moritz for Ponte Vedra and #3 Ballestero for Osceola, expect another close battle for the state title next fall with both teams returning so much talent.
One of the more surprising team finishes in the entire state meet came with the St. Thomas Aquinas girls moving up to grab third place with 191 points in the 3A race ahead of another South Florida squad that had beat them all season long and was expected to be a state title contender in Our Lady of Lourdes Academy finishing in fourth place with 212 points.
St. Thomas Aquinas had actually finished third at the 3A Region 4 Meet only a week prior behind not only Our Lady of Lourdes Academy but Dillard as well. But despite being ranked 9th in the virtual meet rankings coming into the meet, the sign was there were for them being within striking distance only 15 points behind Our Lady of Lourdes in third place at regionals.
St. Thomas Aquinas had three girls break 20 minutes on the state meet course led by freshman Grace Finneran earning All-State honors with a personal best time of 18:59 for 12th place. Two more underclassmen teammates finished high up in the field between sophomore Lindsey Duffner (23rd, 19:43) and freshman Zoe Giacobbe (31st, 19:57). A young squad that also is one to watch rise potentially next year to challenge Ponte Vedra and Osceola for a podium spot had freshman Amanda Edwards (74th, 20:39) and senior Faith Wallace (80th, 20:42).
The Our Lady of Lourdes girls are likely disappointed with their fourth-place finish with 212 points in the 3A state race after moving down from 4A one year ago. Thru their first three finishers at the state meet, they were actually beating both eventual podium teams Ponte Vedra and Osceola with 37 points.
Their front runner Olivia Fraga did what she needed to do in sixth place with a time of 18:39, while teammates Olivia Rodriguez (18th, 19:29) and Johanna Diez (19th, 19:30) finished right inside the top 20 to keep them in state title contention. Unfortunately, they lost ground in the #4 and #5 runner spots on the other two state title-contending teams as well as opened the door for St. Thomas Aquinas girls to surge ahead of them.
Our Lady of Lourdes had been the top team in South Florida for the entire cross country season regardless of classification, but the 3A teams and runners especially showed up the best from that region of the state with Dillard High School out of Fort Lauderdale finishing fifth place with 232 points to make 3 of the top 5 comes from 3A Region 4 (South).
4 of the top 7 individual finishers came from the region as well led by an exceptional finish by American Heritage sophomore Ashley Fitzgerald to clock a personal best 5K time of 18:13 as the 3A state runner-up. Fitzgerald finished 9th in last year's state race to earn her second straight All-State honor but impressively stepped up on the state stage after finishing third at her district and regional meet.
Finishing 7 seconds behind Fitzgerald for third place was Dillard sophomore Christiana Coleman leading her squad to a top 5 finish as well. After finishing sixth at the state meet as an eighth-grader in the 2019 FHSAA State XC Finals, Coleman was not allowed to compete in last year's state meet due to the covid travel restrictions for Broward County schools at the time. She certainly took advantage of and appreciated the opportunity to compete in the state meet after missing it one year ago due to factors out of her control.
Olivia Fraga, the sprinter turned long-distance runner in her first cross country season for Our Lady of Lourdes, finished a respectable sixth place in her first state meet. The 3A Region 4 champion Addison Boyer of South Fork was 90 seconds faster than her freshman year performance at the state meet to finish 7th as a sophomore in the 3A race with a time of 18:41.
Going into the meet, the talk was about a fast freshman using this race as a springboard to future state titles in Ponte Vedra's Sofia Bushkell. However, Bushkell did not end up being the top finishing freshman in the race. That title belonged to Ocala Vanguard's Pippa Worden finishing one place and seven seconds ahead of Bushkell (under the weather) with an outstanding fourth-place personal best effort of 18:27.
Worden had only broken 19 minutes for the very first time at her regional meet in a runner-up 18:35 effort behind Caroline Wells at the 3A Region 2 Meet in Kissimmee. Worden and Bushkell could develop into a spirited rivalry for years to come.
There is still plenty of youth in the classification and returnees with only 5 of the 15 All-State finishers being seniors who will graduate getting on the podium in their last shot in Wells, Lily Henne of Lake Minneola (8th, 18:41), Cristal Gomez of Lake Wales (9th, 18:49), Reilly Barber of St. Augustine (11th, 18:56), and Moritz.