LAKEWOOD RANCH — In the days leading up to the biggest race of their young careers, the Lakewood Ranch girls cross country team didn’t show any signs of nervousness.
In fact, they appeared to be just the opposite. They spent more time belting out song lyrics, cracking jokes and having fun than worrying about the expectations that come with being one of the top three teams in the state and having won county, district and regional titles.
“The girls have been on a roll, and I don’t think they feel the pressure,” coach Mary Quinn said before the race. “I think for them … they’re relaxed and loose and that’s a good thing.”
The girls carried that attitude into last Saturday’s Class 3A state meet at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City, where they finished second in the state with 62 points behind Tallahassee Chiles (40 points).
Freshman Kristin Zarrella finished fourth in 18:44.97, shaving more than a minute off her regional time and eclipsing her school record by 13 seconds. Fellow freshman Olivia Ortiz finished eighth in 18:55.03, followed by freshman Natalie Novak (15th) in 19:31.25, sophomore Devin McDermott (22nd) in 19:36.74, freshman Ashley Platt (31st) in 20:00.99 and junior Emily Wray (88th) in 21:21.24.
Ortiz beat her previous personal best time by 10 seconds, and Novak dropped 18 seconds off her time. Not a bad way to end the best season in program history.
“I don’t think they realize how special of a group they are at this moment,” Quinn said.
The are special indeed, especially for a team that features four freshmen.
Quinn and McDermott, who made a name for herself last season as a freshman, knew Zarrella would be a welcome addition to the team this year. As for Ortiz, Platt and Novak, it wasn’t until the first meet of the season — when the Lady Mustangs won the Mountain Dew Invitational — that Quinn realized just how much talent her team possessed.
Perhaps one of the biggest surprises this season has been Ortiz, a lifelong soccer player who had never run cross country prior to joining the team this season.
“Over the years, I started to like running,” Ortiz said. “Running is a form of punishment in most sports, so there are few people who actually enjoy it. It was all new, so I decided to try it and I ended up liking it.”
During the season, the girls improved their times to become the most dominant team in the area. And perhaps no one has been more affected by the team’s new look this season than McDermott, who now has several teammates who can challenge her every day at practice.
“It’s been a different experience from last year,” McDermott said. “Last year, I received more individual recognition because my times weren’t really close to the other runners.
“But now, it’s better because we have more depth, and it’s more of a team effort,” she said. “It’s awesome having a whole group of talented (runners).”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].