LAKEWOOD RANCH — For four Lakewood Ranch High seniors, reality has finally begun to set in.
It’s a reality the quartet never envisioned having to go through when they burst onto the cross-country scene four years ago, but it’s one they now have no choice but to accept.
They can no longer dwell on the past.
The time has come for them to finally move forward.
For Kristin Zarrella, Natalie Novak and Ashley Platt that means proving to themselves and their competitors what they are capable of without the help of one of their leaders while leaving their mark on the program one final time.
And for Olivia Ortiz, it means focusing her energy on a new set of goals, as she prepares to write her own great comeback story.
“It’s definitely different not having our two captains from last year,” Zarrella said of Ortiz and Devin McDermott, who now runs cross-country for the University of Florida. “The reality of not having them has not been easy, but we can’t lose sight of our goals.
“We can still do this,” Zarrella said. “This year we can’t rely on Olivia to carry us through. We all need to perform well and train harder. It’s motivation for us. Now we’re running for her, and we can’t take for granted the gift that we have.”
The Lakewood Ranch High girls cross-country team opened its season with a second-place finish at the Barron Collier Invite Sept. 8 — its first meet without Ortiz, who broke her femur in the Class 3A Track and Field Finals May 4.
The Lady Mustangs scored 96 points to finish behind Estero (26 points). Katie Wray (21:06.50) led the way for Lakewood, followed by Novak (21:17.6), Michelle Last (21:52.80), Emily Perez (21:53.90) and Platt (23:15.70).
“I think it’s exciting,” Novak said. “Now, as captains, we are able to help the younger girls and develop the program. We all have to step up and work hard. It’s anyone’s game. I think everyone pushes each other, which will only make us better.”
From the moment she stepped onto the track at the regional track and field meet, Ortiz knew something wasn’t right.
The pain in her left leg was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. With three races that day, Ortiz tried to do only what she needed to do to qualify for the Class 3A state meet.
After taking a few days off to rest her leg, Ortiz was cleared to run again. She briefly thought about not competing, but quickly pushed the notion aside.
Ortiz ran the second leg of the 4 x 800 relay, rather than her usual anchor leg, and helped lead the Lady Mustangs to a state championship.
“I could barely run a mile, but I (was cleared to run), and I felt like there was no excuse not to run,” Ortiz said. “The state meet is a pretty big meet.
“It’s just incredible what adrenaline can do for you,” Ortiz said. “I didn’t want to let my team down. I could not let them down.”
Ortiz finished as the state runner-up in the mile before approaching the starting line for the two-mile run — her signature event. But, at that point, Ortiz wasn’t focused on state titles or medals.
“I just wanted to get through the night,” Ortiz said. “That was the main goal.”
Ortiz was in her final stretch — 50 meters away from crossing the finish line and reaching her goal — when she heard a loud pop. In an instant, everything changed.
Ortiz fell to the track in shock and began pleading for help. At first, Ortiz thought she had dislocated her hip, but X-rays would later reveal she had broken her femur.
Ortiz was transported to Wolfson Children’s Hospital in Jacksonville, where she underwent a pair of surgeries for her injury, which was considered a trauma-related injury as opposed to a sports injury, and she spent about five days in the hospital.
“I was just in shock the whole time,” Ortiz said. “Your body and mind go in complete opposite directions. On the way to the hospital, I kept (shouting), ‘Have you done this before? Do you know what you’re doing?’
“The hospital really took good care of me,” Ortiz said. “It was just an incredible experience. It’s sad you don’t know what it feels like until you go through it. It’s the little things in life, like getting out of bed … one day you can be completely fine, and the next day it’s not how you would like.”
MAKING A COMEBACK
Ortiz spent the summer undergoing rehabilitation therapy, which she continues to do three days a week. Ortiz also uses a bone simulator, a low-intensity ultrasound, for 20 minutes a day to help encourage bone growth.
The process appears to be working. Ortiz recently learned her bone is more than halfway healed.
She also spent time with Grace Tinkey, Georgia’s top high school runner whom she met at last year’s Foot Locker South cross-country meet in North Carolina. Tinkey broke her fibula, and, similar to Ortiz, she had to take a break from cross-country.
Ortiz traveled to Tinkey’s home in Macon, Ga., where the two friends bonded about their injuries, rehabilitation process and cross-country training.
Although Ortiz still isn’t ready to run again, she was recently cleared to start underwater pool running.
“I’m just taking it day by day,” Ortiz said. “(At first), I was really down on myself, but I’ve tried to keep a positive attitude. I feel like if you have a positive attitude, then positive things will happen.”
In addition to rehab, Ortiz also spends several days a week strength training and rebuilding muscle mass.
And, although the doctors told Ortiz she will be able to run again one day, she isn’t about to rush the process.
“As much as I want to run, I still have a lot of work to do,” Ortiz said. “I just feel like when something like this happens, you have to be strong. I want to have that great comeback story and I will.
“You don’t know how strong you are until strong is all you have,” Ortiz said. “I will be back — no matter what it takes. I just have to be patient.”
CARVING A NEW PATH
Ortiz may not be competing for the Lady Mustangs this season, but that doesn’t mean she’s ready to walk away from her teammates or the sport she’s grown to love.
Ortiz was named an honorary captain, joining team captains Novak and Zarrella, and plans to attend as many of the meets as she can. Ortiz also will be a part of Florida Runners’ cross-country coverage team.
“Every day I see them out there, it just motivates me and makes me more determined to get back out there,” Ortiz said. “I just have to be patient. I just want to get back to running and prove that I can run again.
“I’m blessed that Florida Runners helped me stay involved and be around the sport,” she said. “It really shows how the running family supports one another. I’m blessed to be supported by great people.”
One goal that hasn’t changed is Ortiz’s desire to run in college — something Novak and Zarrella also share. Ortiz has been contacted by 20 different Division I colleges, and Novak and Zarrella also have garnered interest from various colleges.
“We definitely want to prove we deserve to run in college,” Zarrella said. “We want to get those key times that colleges are looking for. (Olivia) showed us the right work ethic to have.”
But, for now, Zarrella, Novak and Platt are focused on helping lead the Lady Mustangs back to the Class 3A Cross Country Championships — a feat the trio believes it is capable of if team members continue to work hard and push themselves.
“Our major goal always is to make it to states as a team,” Novak said. “We’re making personal bests, and we’ve all improved significantly this year. We know what’s expected of us week by week.”
And there’s no one motivating and pushing the Lady Mustangs more than last year’s individual cross-country champion.
“I’m so happy for the girls,” Ortiz said. “From freshman to senior year, they’ve all improved so much. I feel bad I won’t be able to help them out, but I’ll do whatever they want me to do. I just want to be with them.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].