The Lakewood Ranch girls cross country team has its sights set on a state title.
High school cross country might have an individual component, but the best programs know team unity is key to success.
The Lakewood Ranch High girls cross country team had a taste of success last year when it finished third overall at the state meet, held in Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park. The Mustangs finished with an average time of 20:04 per runner, 16 seconds behind state champion Plant High's average time of 19:48. With almost every key contributor returning in 2021 except Sydney Granack, who graduated, the Mustangs are a legitimate state title contender if they stay healthy.
While Lakewood Ranch can't control the injury situation, everything else is being monitored and practiced. Senior Gracie Marston said the Mustangs have had many conversations about winning a state title. They are willing to put in the work to make it happen.
"All the girls are into it," said Marston, who finished in 19:18 at the 2020 state meet. "We've been close before and we think we have what it takes. We all want to shoot for it."
Do the Mustangs need to improve their average time by 16 seconds to do it?
In 2019, Newsome High won the state event with an average time of 19:05, and second-place Chiles High had an average of 19:07. Those are absurdly fast averages. But in 2018, Plant High won with a more reasonable 19:24 average, and in 2017, winner Winter Park High had a 19:35 average. In other words, there's a wide range of times that could potentially be good enough to win the state. In all likelihood, one of the teams in last year's top five will make a massive time cut.
The work required to do so will be more than just physical. Teams can't simply pick an average time and aim to achieve it. They'll have to outwork their opponents leading up to race day, making it possible to find a final gear when their opponents begin to fade. As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the Mustangs' strategy for this is to remember its just a race.
"We have to view our teammates not as competitors but people we're working with," Marston said of the individual aspect of cross country. "You have to always lift people up. If someone (on your team) beats you in a race, you have to think, 'Well, they had a better day than me.' Last year we struggled with that. This year I think we have a better mindset. We're a team. We're here to make everyone better."
Senior runner Aurora Melzer, who ran the 2020 state meet in 19:16, said the state title has been a point of conversation simply because the team knows it's capable of winning. With Melzer, Marston and Hailey Marston (21:39) all graduating in 2022, this might be the team's best shot for a few seasons.
There's no magic button runners can hit to drop time. They can eat right and follow a workout regimen to the letter and it might not matter. It takes prolonged work, slowly ramping up to full speed and effort so everyone is running their best at the right time. Then, it's about want-to. That being the case, the Mustangs won't know how far they can push themselves until it's time to head back to Apalachee on Nov. 12.
"We're looking at the big picture," Melzer said. "We're not sweating the small things. We're all about the end goal. I think our mindset is the most important thing. We're all on the same page. We're going to be ready to run."
Join the Neighborhood! Our 100% local content helps strengthen our communities by delivering news and information that is relevant to our readers. Support independent local journalism by joining the Observer's new membership program — The Newsies — a group of like-minded community citizens, like you. Be a Newsie.