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Lakewood Ranch High boys cross-country team makes positive strides

The Mustangs have a shot at their first team state meet appearance since 2016.

Senior Andrew Scott, junior Vicente Rivera, junior Jonathan Leatt, junior Dylan Johnson and junior Vayle Johnson have the Lakewood Ranch High boys cross country team in the state meet hunt.
Senior Andrew Scott, junior Vicente Rivera, junior Jonathan Leatt, junior Dylan Johnson and junior Vayle Johnson have the Lakewood Ranch High boys cross country team in the state meet hunt.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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It has been a long time coming. 

The Lakewood Ranch High boys cross-country team had a string of success in the late-2010s, the crowning achievement being a second-place finish at the Class 4A Florida High School Athletic Association state meet in 2016.

That year, three Mustangs finished in the top 50, led by then-senior John Rivera Jr. in 20th (16:31.19), while two others finished in the top 90. The team would miss the state meet in 2017 and 2018, but it still had representation as Jonathan Reid qualified as an individual both years and finished with a silver medal in 2018 (15:49.70). 

That was the last time any Mustangs boys runner reached the state meet. In 2018, longtime coach Bryan Thomas retired, and by 2019, when Bill Zarrella took over the program as coach, the runners involved in that 2017 team's success were all gone. In the years since, Zarrella has tried to get the program back to the top, essentially starting from scratch. 

It has been a process, but the Mustangs appear to be on their way back up the ladder. Lakewood Ranch has a group of five solid runners — senior Andrew Scott and juniors Jonathan Leatt, Vicente Rivera and twins Dylan Johnson and Vayle Johnson — that Zarrella believes has a shot to get back to the state meet. 

That is, if everyone runs their best at the district and regional levels.

"We need to have five good ones," Zarrella said. "If you have four good ones and the fifth is way in the back, that's what kills you. They're all going to have to step it up." 

The Mustangs have a few meets left before worrying about the postseason, which begins with its district meet Nov. 2 at North Port High. In that span of time, the runners are concentrating on improvement. 

The Mustangs took a good first step toward their goal of returning to the state meet by winning the 2023 Weeki Wachee Invitational over 17 teams on Sept. 30 in Brooksville.

Leatt, the team's No. 1 runner, finished second overall in 17:28.35, and the rest of the team's five scorers all finished in the top 20. The Mustangs tried not to make too much of their showing. While it always feels good to win, they said, the meet was against mostly smaller schools that they won't be competing against in the postseason. 

"We were the big fish in the small pond," Vicente Rivera said. "We want to be the big fish in the big pond." 

The Lakewood Ranch runners have taken different paths to get to this point. Some, like Leatt and Scott, have been competing for a long time. They do it because the activity has been ingrained in them. Distance workouts are simply a product of their routine.

For Scott in particular, it also helps with his soccer workouts, he said. Twins Dylan and Vayle Johnson joked that they don't always like running, despite doing it since their middle school days. They're doing it because they enjoy their team and as something that stands out on their college resumes. 

Others, like Rivera, were new to the sport when they started high school. Rivera joined the school's track and field team as a freshman after encouragement from then-senior Dylan Underwood, who was Rivera's First Sergeant in the school's JROTC program. 

Underwood saw Rivera's natural speed and thought it was a fit. He was right, not only on the results sheet, but in the way Rivera feels while in the middle of a race. 

"There's a point during a middle of a race where I feel like time slows down," Rivera said. "All I can hear is my feet hitting the ground and my breathing. It's the happiest thing in the world to me."

Mustangs junior Jonathan Leatt finished second overall at the 2023 Weeki Wachee Invitational (17:28.35).
Courtesy image

The Mustangs also have enjoyed the bonding that goes with being part of a team. Road trips are a particular favorite. The music is loud as it is in the hands of Andrew Scott, the lone senior in the team's top five,. It is usually hip-hop songs with some pop songs sprinkled throughout the mix and the team relishes stopping at places like Villa Italia Pizzeria in Largo for a fresh slice. 

What Zarrella likes about his athletes, he said, is that they know how to balance that fun with work. 

"They have been good about that," Zarrella said. "We do two hard workouts, a speed workout, and two distance workouts (per week). Everyone's times have improved a ton over the last two months. 

"The (Lakewood Ranch) girls team has overshadowed the boys for a while now. But we're up-and-coming and we're only going to get better. We have a good core here. The future is bright." 

In their pursuit of a return trip to the state meet, the Mustangs hope that the future is now. 



Ryan Kohn

Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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