TONY CASTROThis week's headlines have been dominated by the race for the White House.
Published: November 10, 2012
Published: November 10, 2012
Yet two other 5-kilometer races Saturday morning in Orange County will have a tremendous impact on who'll represent the local constituency at next week's coveted FHSAA Finals in Leon County.
At the heart of the action are two teams with no party affiliation – the Nature Coast boys and girls.
Only the top six teams during Saturday morning's Class 2A, Region II Meets across Orlando-Lake Nona High's 5K course, will advance to the 66th boys finals and the 39th girls finals next Saturday in Tallahassee.
Unlike the Sharks – second in the boys, first in the girls race – Hernando High's girls are seeded 10th. Pundits label the Lady Leopards' chance to advance as a long shot. With a stellar outing, they may finish as high as eighth.
On the boys side, Leopard freshman Tyler Pantley reached regionals as an individual. He's seeded 59th overall. Only the top 15 individual finishers in both races advance to states.
Both Shark teams are attempting to achieve history.
Third-year Nature Coast head coach Eric Milholland's male thinclad squad is attempting to claim back-to-back regional titles for the first time in school history.
Race time is set for 9:45 a.m.
Nature Coast, the defending 2A-II champion, arrives Saturday morning in Orange County seeded second behind host Lake Nona.
The Sharks are seeking Hernando County's initial regional team repeat since Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman's Hernando Leopard squads of 2005-06.
Coincidentally, Hernando holds the Hernando County mark for most all-time regional team titles (eight) – all achieved under Coach Chatman.
Chatman's Purple and Gold thinclads also hold the record for most regional titles in a row (three) established from 1991-93.
Nature Coast enters with eight top-10 finishes in nine meets featuring four wins: Zak Lukas, Mount Dora Bible Invitational, Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic and last week's Class 2A, District 6 Meet at Mount Dora Bible.
The Sharks are seeking their school-record fourth straight win behind six of Hernando County's top nine runners: junior James Harkless (county-best 16:44.81), senior Kevin Ciccione (16:50.00), senior Cody Van Natter (16:50.43), senior Stephen Murphy (17:26.98), junior Joe Clark (17:42.00) and freshman Austin Mulyck (17:52.86).
Nature Coast's seventh runner, junior Carlton Blackburn, is ranked 15th in the latest Hernando County Honor Roll at 18:51.40.
According to Milholland, the Sharks trudged through the hilly terrain at Mount Dora Bible and are primed for the grassy, flat surface at Lake Nona,
"Everyone is healthy. Anything we do (time-wise) after Mount Dora will be an improvement. Cody was absolutely pooped last week (despite churning out a winning time of 16:51.11).
"Individually, this could be anybody's race," added Milholland. "It really depends on who's hungry."
With so much at stake, the Sharks chose not to run a practice session along the Lake Nona course.
"It was too long a ride up and back," explained Coach Milholland. "I discussed this with our captains. They would rather us be rested up than take up to five hours going there and back.
"We'll be going into this one blind," noted Milholland. "We'll see what happens."
The biggest prerace question is whether the top-seeded Lake Nona Lions can hold off the defending champion Sharks.
On how he has sold this race to his thinclads, Milholland said, "I told the boys I'm not worried about individual times. Qualifying (for states) is a must. Winning this race would be nice. The onus for our guys is to maintain what we've done all season. The key to the race is keeping it mentally together."
On how the race will shape up, "Lake Nona's top two could finish ahead of us. That's OK. We want to pack our top four on their top two," forecasted Milholland. "Then our 5-6 must concentrate on beating their 3-4-5 guys."
"It'll be a successful meet," described Milholland, "if we win this meet."
Before Milholland took over the reins of the Lady Sharks program this fall, Nature Coast was 0-for-9 in district titles.
A week removed from capturing the school's first-ever district crown in Lake County, the Lady Sharks enter Lake Nona on unfamiliar territory – ranked as the top team in Saturday's 12-team field in Orange County.
Not bad for a program that finished a disappointing seventh on its home course last fall and had not reached regionals five times among the last nine seasons.
Nature Coast will be represented by seven of Hernando County's fastest runners behind Springstead sophomore Tiana Newton, Hernando County's defending Runner of the Year; this season: junior Crystal Burchhardt (20:28.60), freshman Alexa Lacy (20:29.30), junior Mary Thomson (20:36.43), senior Brielle Perlingieri (20:54.69), freshman Summer March (21:21.70), and juniors Brianna Horn (21:30.39) and Alyssa DeLigio (22:00.75).
Horn, who severely twisted an ankle prior to the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic and did not compete in districts, is expected to join the squad Saturday.
"We're expecting Brianna (Horn) to run," indicated Milholland. "She's run a mile and then biked for a mile a couple times this week. She's not 100 percent (healthy). She hasn't done any speed work in three weeks, but we're anticipating that she'll run."
At issue is whether defending regional champion Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic (seeded third), Orlando-Lake Highland Prep (seeded second) or Gulf (seeded fourth) can spoil the Lady Sharks' bid at their first-ever regional title.
"We've earned our seeding," noted Milholland on a program that has never captured back-to-back meets in its 10-year history. "I've asked the girls to just run like they have all season."
On the keys to winning Saturday's meet, "At this stage, mental preparation is everything," pointed out Milholland. "Our girls have to be mentally sharp before the starting gun. We want to avoid coming in with rubber legs, so we've backed off a little in practice. To me, the first half-mile is critical; we have to get out well."
On the possibility of achieving states, "It's a must we go to states with this group. They deserve it," admitted Coach Milholland. "We're so deep right now that even if two girls go down, we feel we can still make states."
Hernando finished third in last week's 2A-6 Meet to qualify for regionals.
The Lady Leopards will be represented by sophomore Cindy Cacares (22:25.72), senior Tabitha Loose (22:36.14), freshmen Dominique Reyes (23:17.57) and Ashley Morris (23:49.69), senior Kendall Raney (24:00.55), and juniors Berkley LaPorte (25:15.87) and Heaven Benson (25:21.00).
First-year skipper Kevin Bittinger, the program's fifth mentor in five years, has guided Herando to its first regional appearance since 2006 – when it finished 13th out of 14 teams in 2A-II.
With Cacares seeded 43rd and Loose 47th – no Lady Leopards are predicted to reach states next week.
"We're going into regionals as healthy as could be expected," identified Coach Bittinger. "I don't know if any team is 100 percent (healthy) at this point in the season. We're battling some aches, pains and soreness, but that's to be expected."
On whether Saturday will be the Lady Leopards' curtain call, "We've taken this team further than anyone has expected," said Bittinger. "I've asked the girls not to leave anything on the course. You don't want to be the person that could have cost us, say, 15 seconds from reaching states.
"On Saturday, we have to get past the threshold of pain," he pointed out. "This group of girls has a bright future. This may be Tabitha's last race, but she has served as a tremendous leader to our team. I look at this meet as great experience for these girls."
On the possibility of another Hernando County team winning regionals, "Don't take me wrong. Nature Coast-Hernando is a rivalry," noted Bittinger. "But those girls (Nature Coast) deserve it. They started this quest when a lot of kids were still at the beach.
"As an opposing coach, Coach Milholland has done a tremendous job over there," added Bittinger. "He serves as a role model to the other coaches. His kids do things the right way. At the end of the day, you have to tip your cap on what he and his kids have accomplished."