Gilbert Manzanares wanted to be the part of a new beginning involving some old friends.
Manzanares was one of the top runners in the state last year as a junior at Naples Lehigh. Lehigh expected to be one of the top teams in Southwest Florida this season, but several of its top runners transferred to the brand new Ida Baker High, following coach John Hyler who also left for Baker.
It was a new start for Manzanares who is expected to make a strong run at a state championship this season. He finished second in the flrunners.com Boys Open Invitational in Dade City on Oct. 1, losing a sprint up a hill to the finish. Jonathan Mott of St. Petersburg Northeast took the win when Manzanares gassed out at the end.
Ranked 12 in the flrunners.com pre-season poll for Class 3A, Manzanares said he misses Lehigh, but made the move, along with Chris Sheperd and Fernando Riberio for a shot at a state individual and team title. The Lehigh transfers are joined by Cape Coral transfer Ian McFarland and freshman Tyler Frenchko who won the middle school championship last year.
Baker had a solid inaugural season last year, but the newcomers have Baker dominating the Fort Myers area this season.
It's Manzanares who is leading the way.
"I love competing,'' Manzanares said. "I have fun doing it, but the competition drives me.''
At the Dade City meet, Manzanares was neck and neck with Mott coming up the steep incline leading to the finish. He didn't have the final kick, but said he can still make up for it at states, which, incidentally, is right back at Dade City. For the flrunners.com race, he was running on injured knees that caused Hyler to slow down his training regimen for about a week.
"I felt strong and I've felt strong all year,'' Manzanares said after losing to Mott. "I just had nothing left at the end. It was a great race and I am getting better all the time.''
Manzanares had a 16:27 at states last year, beating all Lee County runners except Fort Myers senior Trevor Popravak. Popravak finished 31st in Dade City in the Boys Race of Champions.
Manzanares wants the individual glory, but he and Hyler believe the team has the potential to be the best in the state. Their top three runners - Manzanares, McParland, and returnee Harrison Philp – are leading the way, but Hyler said for the team to go far, the remaining runners have to pull their share of the load.
"We look strong right now,'' Hyler said. "We still need to work on our runners beyond the top three. We have the talent there, but we need a full team effort.''
Baker, which hasn't won a state championship yet, will at least be in the running, especially with a healthier Manzanares. He could have stayed at the more established Lehigh program, but wanted a new beginning with his old coach and the move seems to have paid off.