BRADEN RIVER — Fourteen-year-old Madison Daunt didn’t set out to take on a leadership role this season.
Instead, the Braden River High freshman joined the cross country team more for the experience itself.
“It seemed like fun to meet everyone and just to be able to run with a team instead of just by myself,” Daunt said.
But after three weeks of practice, Braden River coach Chris Bratton already has pegged Daunt and fellow freshmen Alexis Cullen and Bridget Lanier as the leaders of the Pirates’ girls cross country team.
“We have a lot of inexperience this year, but we had a core group of freshman girls that ran during the summer and three of them will be my top leaders coming into the season,” Bratton said. “I’m excited to start the season and see how they fair. It’s going to be pretty exciting just to see what happens and see how far they go because you just never know.”
Daunt, Cullen and Lanier will get their first taste of high school competition during the annual Canes Classic 5K Sept. 7 at G.T. Bray Park. The meet will feature teams from across the county, including Manatee and district rivals Lakewood Ranch and Palmetto.
While Daunt, Cullen and Lanier each ran cross country in middle school, the girls already have come to the realization that the additional mile they’ll have to run this year won’t be just a walk in the park.
“It’s not really the extra mile as much as it’s the (increased) competition from other schools and my Braden River teammates too,” Daunt said. “It’s not just a local 5K where you have all different ages of people running — it’s a whole different level now.”
After an average season last year during which the Pirates lost several runners to injury, the Pirates will face a new level of competition this season after having moved up to Class 3A from Class 2A.
The new 13-member school district features four Manatee County schools, giving the Pirates additional opportunities to size up their competition before heading into the district meet.
“It’s going to be a whole different ball game,” Bratton said. “It’s going to be really nice because in the past we didn’t see any of our district opponents until we got there and now a lot of them are here. So it’ll be nice every time we run in a meet to be able to talk to them about what they need to do and take on that challenge.
“We have a new focus and something new to look at,” he added. “I’m just excited for the year to start and excited to see how it all plays out.”
After winning both the county and district tournaments last season, the Lady Mustangs had hoped to advance to the state tournament.
But after a disappointing regional tournament, Lakewood found itself on the outside looking in. Looking to put the past behind them, the girls spent the vast majority of the summer training both on their own and with Lakewood coach Mary Quinn.
“The quality of girls that we have running this year is outstanding,” Quinn said. “I see in them that drive to really go above and beyond. They have that drive inside to push themselves.”
Leading the way for the Lady Mustangs this season will be senior Kelsey Grimaldi, junior Emily Wray, sophomore Devin McDermott and freshman Kristin Zarella.
After a successful freshman campaign, a hip injury sidelined Wray last season. But after a year of rehabilitation, Wray is eager to get back out on the course.
“It was hard, but I loved summer practices to help get back in shape, and I’m feeling ready for the season,” Wray said. “Our team is looking really good and I think we’re going to do really well this year.”
Meanwhile the Lakewood boys cross country team is still in rebuilding mode.
Leading the way for the Mustangs this season will be junior Justin Young, who underwent knee surgery over the offseason. Young began running again two months ago and is poised to return to last season’s form.
“I just want to get to where I was last season or (even) better if I can,” Young said.
Last season was one of firsts for The Out-of-Door Academy cross country team.
After quadrupling its roster from six members to 25, the Thunder had enough runners to be eligible to compete as a team. Both the boys and girls squads continued to make historic strides throughout the season with the boys team qualifying for the regional meet before coming up one point short of advancing to the state meet, while the girls team finished one spot away from advancing to the regional meet.
“We were really good last year,” freshman Juliette Onufrak said. “The guys had a really good team and the girls improved from the previous year.”
Leading the way for the Thunder this season will be junior Josh Kennon, and eighth-grader Peter Runge, who finished as last season’s No. 2 varsity runner.
Meanwhile, the girls will be lead by eighth-grader Julia Bellanger, who was named last season’s MVP, Onufrak and senior team captain Lauren Falahee, among several others.
“I think last year the team exceeded expectations,” ODA coach Joe Runge said. “This year we lost quite a lot in terms of talent, but they’re cohesive, very dutiful and are running some of the hardest workouts I’ve put together over my 22-year career.
“We have a host of middle school and ninth-graders that are really the blood and guts of the team,” he said. “For the season if we can make the regional meet then I would be ecstatic.”
The Thunder will open their 2009 season with the New Balance Jamboree Sept. 12 on Siesta Key.
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].