LAKE ASBURY – With three pre-state level cross country races scattered statewide over the September 29 weekend, area harriers got a chance in the last week to put the readiness barometer to …
LAKE ASBURY – With three pre-state level cross country races scattered statewide over the September 29 weekend, area harriers got a chance in the last week to put the readiness barometer to work.
Tops on the list was the FLRunners.com Invitational held in Lakeland on Saturday and featuring Orange Park High senior John Bear taking on defending state champs from around Florida and finishing 13th in 16 minutes, 34.92 seconds.
At Ponte Vedra High School, the Fleming Island High boys team, led by sophomore Kameron Wallizada, finished second to host Ponte Vedra. The top area finishers, St. Johns Country Day School’s power duo; senior Benjamin Kailes and freshman Matthew Stratton, wound up ahead of Ridgeview’s Joel Nesi and also Wallizada.
At the Fleming Island High Eagles 5K cross country race held Saturday late afternoon at Van Zant Park in Lake Asbury, it was Oakleaf High junior Dylan Nelson running a strong solo test in 17:08 to win uncontested as a top “off the radar” effort.
For Orange Park High coach Doug Barrows, his main push for the next four weeks is speed.
“We are done with strength work and this was the last meet for the team to see where we stand in our training to take on the best runners in four weeks at districts,” said Barrows. “John has been steadily pushing his strength levels up to be stronger at the end. Now, we start factoring in speed into the mix.”
Barrows, who brings an ultra-distance background to his coaching at Orange Park, sees the peak season as forthcoming.
“The team has to realize that we are going to go up against teams like Creekside, Ponte Vedra and Bartram Trail in our district and all three have been in the state meet mix the past few years,” he said, noting Bear’s 12th place district finish last year. “John needs the team to get closer. The Aris brothers are right there. Our new guy, Ladarius Dumas, is strong, but him and the Aris brothers; Stevenson and Steven, have to include the killer instinct knowing this is it. One race and you go home if you are not willing to take out anyone in the top 16.”
Note: Ponte Vedra, Creekside and Bartram Trail were third, fourth and fifth at last year’s region meet behind Tallahassee Chiles and Niceville with Orange Park only fielding Bear who wound up 18th at 17:14, just out of the state-advancing top 16. The top 10 boys region finishers were under 17 minutes.
“We have to have John in the low 16 minutes, which he has proven all season, but it’s the next four guys that have to pull it together,” said Barrows.
Barrows noted also that in the Boys Invitational race at the FLRunners.com meet, the Orange Park boys team, minus Bear, and led by Dumas’ 38th place in 18:17.21, finished 13th out of 39 teams with the Aris brothers in at 67th in 18:44 for Stevenson and 96th in 19:07 for Steven.
“Those two compete hard against each other, but they have to think past that and start taking out other teams runners,” said Barrows. “We get those three in under 18 and John sticks one at a low 16 then it’s all on our number five to bring it home.”
In the Race of Champions, Mount Dora junior Gabriel Curtis, fourth in Class 1A last year, was the overall winner in 15:57.34 with Hugh Brittenham, a senior at Estero High and seventh in Class 3A last year, second in 16:01.96.
“John is just 30 seconds away,” said Barrows. “The gap to 18 minutes and under was 90 runners so that’s where we are working to get the others in at.”
For Fleming Island High’s boys and girls teams; both with season wins at meets this season; Bartram Trail’s Bales N Trails for the boys team and the Bob Hans Invite at Ridgeview for the girls, have put both teams on the radar as districts approach with top runners Kameron Wallizada and Mei Chiang leading the Golden Eagles charges.
For Wallizada, who has run in the second pack of his most recent races, then unleashed a final surge in the final 1.5 miles, the inching to 16 minutes keeps running numbers crunchers awaiting his first sub-16 minute race.
Nesi, who had a complicated finish at the recent UNF Invite with severe dehydration and fatigue putting him in an ice bath after that race, rebounded strongly at the Ponte Vedra race with a best of season 16:55 effort on the oppressively hot and humid atmosphere.
“I felt strongest I’ve been all season,” said Nesi, who was spotted at the recent Jaguars vs. Jets football game. “I think we figured out what has been going on with my weakened finishes.”
With Wallizada just behind Nesi with a 16:58 finished for ninth, it was Fleming Island’s Will Livesay at 11th in 17:08 who could very well be the pivotal runner for coach Karen Moritz’ boys team at Fleming Island.
“He has been really working harder and harder each week and seeing the results,” said Moritz. “I’m hoping he gets that first sub-17 minute time at districts, then gets his confidence up for a strong region run.”
Fleming Island had four runners behind Livesay under 18 minutes; Landon Opp, Jayden Scherer, Gage West and John Brinkman, to boost the Golden Eagle score.
“John Brinkman had the race of the season and it comes close to where we could have six guys in a big pack,” said Moritz. “Kameron is consistent now under 17 and Will is close. Those next four are all able to get 20-30 seconds more on a good day.”
For Kailes and Stratton, who doubled down with their 1-2 finish at the Katie Caples Invite a week ago at Bishop Kenny High, coach Jay Birmingham is the master of November, plain and simple.
“No speed work until October and a high mileage base,” said Birmingham. “Our runners train on their own in what we call ‘One Hundred Days of Summer’ with Benjamin running 1008 miles and Matthew running 800 from May 27 to Labor Day.”
Kailes finished third overall at Ponte Vcdra in 16:30 with Stratton hanging just off his tail for fifth in 16:46.
At Katie Caples, Kailes won in 16:46 with Stratton second in 17:01.
“Our focus is November 10, the state meet,” said Birmingham. “We are not really interested in meet results until districts.”
Nesi, and dad Al Nesi, the Ridgeview coach, also have gotten some good races recently from senior Keith Kelley who finished 22nd at Ponte Vedra in 17:41.
“Keith is a guy that excels at the races,” said Nesi. “He may not look like he likes practice, but he likes to compete.”
Also in Class 4A, district 1-4A specifically, is Nelson, who has hovered also in the top 10 of recent races with a 16:49 at Katie Caples in the Invitational race, the effort at Van Zant was all a mental test.
“He’s the kind of kid that needs a guy next to him to battle,” said Oakleaf coach Jim Henderson. “This race (Van Zant) is more a mental test to see how hard he was going to push himself by himself. I think it will help in our very fast district.”
Nelson, who finished races under 17 minutes last year, finished a disappointing 27th in 17:09 at the region 1-4A championships last year.
“He knows what sub-17 feels like with this year’s results,” said Henderson. “He should be comfortable in the fast district and region races this year.”
Also finishing a strong race at Van Zant, Nelson’s teammate Damien Price, a senior with four years of strong running for Oakleaf, who held off Eagle’s View Academy’s Marcus Haynes for second with a kick in 18:38.36. Clay High got a strong finish from newcomer Carlton Waiguru, a sophomore, who strode in at fifth in 18:55.12.
For the Fleming Island girls, fifth place finishers at the Katie Caples Invitational race behind powerhouses Bolles, Creekside, Montverde Academy and Trinity Prep, all non-Class 4A schools, the future rides on a team of young runners with enough savvy to shake up the very strong region 1-4A teams of the last few years; defending region and state champion Winter Park, region runnerup and fourth at state Winter Springs, and Lake Brantley, third in region 1-4A and sixth in 4A, plus fourth in region 1-4A and 12th in 4A Lake Minneola with fifth in region 1-4A and ninth in 4A Spruce Creek.
At Katie Caples, Lake Minneola finished 11th with Spruce Creek 14th. Also behind Fleming Island, in seventh, was Braddock High out of Miami, third in 4A last year.
Fleming Island was 11th in region 1-4A in 2017.
Note: In last week’s cross country article featuring the return of junior Jennifer Fliess to the varsity lineup, it was incorrectly reported that she finished in 23:13 at the 2017 region 1-4A race. That finish was for her twin sister Jessica Fliess. Jennifer Fliess finished strongly in 20:37 for 33rd place in the 2017 region 1-4A championship race.
Freshman Mei Chiang, who ran 19:22 at Katie Caples, was in an elite field that had the top eight under 19 minutes with winner Carly McNatt, of Holy Trinity, winning in 17:53.
In last year’s Class 4A race, held in the very rugged Apalachee Regional Park’s hilly terrain, the top two times were both under 18 minutes; 17:26.61 and 17:30.82 with the top 13 finishers under 19 minutes.
At the region 1-4A championship race, the top seven were under 19 minutes leaving Fleming Island coach Suzanne Baker looking to fill the next nine spots with Chiang the lone sub-20 runner thus far. That will leave some championship efforts for the likes of freshmen Grace Adams and Lauren Schaudel with sophomores Emma Millson and Marisa Kortright. Fliess, the lone upper classmen, will be instrumental in the next four weeks in pulling her underclass sisters into championship form.
Set for Sat., Oct. 6 at Cecil Field’s golf course, runners will get a sneak peek at the Region 1A, 2A, 3A course as those meets will be coming to north Florida in November. The New World Fall Spectacular/Region 1A-3A Preview features races Friday night starting at 4 p.m. in junior high school and the Jacksonville-based Gateway Conference with Saturday races for high school varsity and junior varsity slated to start at 8 a.m.
Also on Saturday, Middleburg High will host the Bronco Bob Classic which serves as the St. Johns River Athletic Conference championship race.