LAKEWOOD RANCH — State berths have become nothing short of commonplace at Lakewood Ranch High School.
The girls cross-country team has advanced to the Class 3A Cross Country Championship each of the past four seasons, finishing in the top five, including a pair of back-to-back, state runner-up finishes, each of those seasons.
But, now, with four of their top five runners from the past four years having moved on to college, including 2011 individual state champion Olivia Ortiz, the Lady Mustangs are relying on a group of new faces to carry on the tradition of excellence.
Over the past three years, seniors Emily Perez and Michelle Last and junior Katie Wray have been part of the expectation.
They’ve been part of the team everyone watched.
A team that dominated cross-country in the area; and a team that was all but guaranteed a berth in the state meet.
They’ve experienced the thrill of competing on the sport’s biggest stage on more than one occasion. And they’ve dealt with the pressure that comes with being the team everyone is seeking to knock out of contention.
Now, for the first time since they set foot at Lakewood Ranch, Perez, Last and Wray, along with the rest of the Lakewood girls cross-country team, are experiencing a new reality — one that has them coming into the season as the underdog.
It’s a position the girls haven’t faced before, but one they are using as motivation for what they hope will be another special season for Lakewood.
“A lot of people are expecting us not to do as well,” Perez says. “We’re just going to try and do our best and try to fill everyone’s shoes who left.”
“There’s not so much pressure and anticipation this season,” Wray says. “We know we have standards to uphold. The fact that a lot of teams don’t think of us as a big threat is kind of what drives us.”
The Lady Mustangs began training for the season over the summer, relying on one another and pushing one another to maintain the standards set before them.
Perez, Last and Wray all attended running camps prior to the start of the season, and they shared the tools and knowledge they received with their teammates in hopes of strengthening the team.
“We’ve bonded a lot more this season,” Last says. “We really push each other to stay positive as a group, so that we’re all on the same page.”
Lakewood opened its season at the Estero Invitational Sept. 1, at Estero Community Park. Wray finished 12th in 21 minutes, 33 seconds to help lead the Lady Mustangs to a sixth-place finish.
Andrea McDonald, Julia Ortiz, Perez and Elizabeth Chandler also all scored points for Lakewood. The Lady Mustangs were without Last, who is coming off a knee injury and opted to run in the annual Canes Classic in Bradenton.
Now, with their first meet under their belts, Perez, Last and Wray are looking to the rest of the season — one they hope will live up to the expectations they’ve created for themselves rather than the ones others already have established for them.
“I’m excited to see how it plays out for all of us,” Perez says. “There’s not as much pressure. We’re definitely more under the radar, so it’s more of a challenge to see where we get without people expecting it.”
“We’re not just going to be given states,” Wray says. “That’s not a guarantee this year. We really have to work for it.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].