TONY CASTROThe first decade of cross-country action for the Nature Coast program concludes with a rare present – both its boys and girls squads competing on the prep sport's ultimate stage – at Saturday's Class 2A FHSAA Finals.
Published: November 17, 2012
Published: November 17, 2012
The starting gun for 39th annual 2A state finals for females is 8 a.m. at Apalachee Regional Park in Leon County.
Less than an hour later, the 66th annual 2A state finals boys race takes place at the same locale.
Hernando County's last remaining squads, both from Nature Coast, have opportunities to leave a legacy.
Fortunately, both teams have competed on the Tallahassee-based 3.1-mile course.
On Oct. 6, Nature Coast's boys, competing in a loaded Gold Division of the Pre-State Meet, finished 24th out of 25 teams.
The Lady Sharks fared a little better placing 13th out of 24 teams in the Pre-State Meet Silver Division.
Both Shark squads will navigate against stout 24-team fields where only the top two teams receive team trophies while medallions are presented to the top 10 individual placers.
The boys 2A field is as loaded as the females.
The male field is expected to include: Region I's Jacksonville-Bishop Kenney, Pensacola-West Florida, Jacksonville-The Bolles School, Pensacola Catholic, Jacksonville-Episcopal and Gainesville-Eastside; Region II's Orlando-Lake Nona, Orlando-Lake Highland Prep, Nature Coast, Gulf, Orlando-Bishop Moore Catholic and The Villages; Region III's Immokalee, Cocoa Beach, Tampa-Jesuit, Tampa-Berkeley Prep, Tampa-Robinson and LaBelle; and Region IV's Miami-Ransom Everglades, Fort Lauderdale-Pine Crest, Key West, Riviera Beach-Suncoast, Boca Raton-St. Andrews and Miami-Monsignor Pace.
The defending state champion is Ransom Everglades.
Nature Coast, guided by third-year skipper Eric Milholland, is making its third straight appearance at "The Show."
In 2007-08, Nature Coast finished 14th and then improved to 13th at states under former mentor Armen Merjanian.
After a tumultuous 2009 season – where Nature Coast needed four coaches to complete the season – the Sharks failed to reach states.
The state drought, however, lasted one season, or until Milholland relocated from Central to the California Street campus.
Under Milholland, the Sharks have steadily improved at states. In 2010, the Sharks finished 20th overall before climbing to a school-record fifth-place finish last season.
Fifth place is the finest performance by any Hernando County team since Hernando High finished as the 2A state runner-up in 2005-06 under Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman.
After back-to-back-to-back team wins at the Mount Dora Bible Invitational the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic and the 2A-District 6 Meet, Milholland's thinclads stubbed their toes last week in Orange County.
Nature Coast, the defending regional champion, fell victim to a pre-meet flu bug and uncommonly high race temperatures to finish third behind host Lake Nona and Lake Highland Prep.
"We went in with three sick guys. During the first mile, I knew we couldn't beat Lake Nona," recalled Coach Milholland. "I was just hoping we could hang for second; and that didn't happen.
"To me, that was the worst race we've run all season and we still qualified (for states)," stressed Milholland on the team's silver lining following regionals. "No one ran well last week with the exception of Joe (Clark).
"At this point, can we catch Lake Nona at states? I doubt it. But I think we have a legit shot at Lake Highland."
In the state virtual meet, Bishop Kenney – with five runners under 16 minutes – is a lock for first place.
According to Milholland, Lake Nona and Cocoa Beach are ranked 2-3. A huge battle looms between 4-7, including Nature Coast.
"There are a couple real encouraging things going in," explained Milholland. "First, we've run the state course before, which helps a lot. There aren't a lot of tight turns.
"Even after Saturday's race, we practiced much better on Monday. So, we're much healthier than we were on race day. And this time we'll be competing at a much cooler time of the day – that'll really help. Last week was unreasonably hot for this time of the year."
Asked what the Sharks' goal is at states, "We're ranked seventh going in," explained Milholland. "Sure, we'd love to exceed last year's finish, but I expect a difficult race. A top-five finish is not out of the question."
Nature Coast will be represented by six of Hernando County's top nine runners: junior James Harkless (county-best 16:44.81 5K clocking), senior Kevin Ciccone (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.
Ciccone (39th), Harkless (52nd), Van Natter (57th) and Murphy (100th) all competed at states last season in Dade City.
Van Natter (74th), Ciccone (114th) and Murphy (164th) each competed at states in Dade City in 2010 – as all will be making their third and final visit to states.
Unlike the Shark thinclads, the Lady Sharks will be making their state debut.
The last female team from Hernando County to place at states was Erin Sullivan's 2004 Hernando High squad that placed fifth out of 24 teams in 2A.
The 2A field is expected to include Region I's The Bolles School, Bishop Kenney, West Florida, Eastside, Pensacola Catholic and Panama City Beach-Arnold; Region II's Nature Coast, Lake Highland Prep, Crystal River, Gulf, Bishop Moore and Lake Nona; Region III's Englewood-Lemon Bay, Robinson, Tampa-Academy of Holy Names, Immokalee, Berkeley Prep and Titusville; and Region IV's Pine Crest, Plantation-American Heritage, Miami-Carrollton, Ransom Everglades, Miami-Doral and Fort Pierce-Lincoln Park.
The defending state champion is Carrollton.
Nature Coast arrives at states riding a wave of momentum behind its first-ever back-to-back wins in 10 years: at the 2A-6 Meet at Mount Dora Bible and the rugged 2A-II Meet at Lake Nona.
Nature Coast will be represented by seven of Hernando County's fastest runners this season: junior Crystal Burchhardt (20:28.60), freshman Alexa Lacy (20:29.30), junior Mary Thomson (20:36.43), senior Brielle Perlingieri (20:50.10), freshman Summer March (21:21.70), and juniors Alyssa DeLigio (21:24.80) and Brianna Horn (21:30.39).
Horn, who severely twisted an ankle prior to the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic, was the lone Nature Coast runner to struggle at regionals. Horn finished 86th in the 88-member race.
"The key to this week is keeping all the kids positive," stressed Coach Milholland. "Unlike the boys, the girls ran tremendous last weekend. We just got to keep it going."
"I think Brianna (Horn) will run much, much better. She's had a better week of practice," noted Milholland. "We're suffering through some typical aches and pains."
Nature Coast's girls enter states ranked eighth overall.
According to the virtual meet, Bolles will be followed by Bishop Kenney, Pine Crest, Lemon Bay, American Heritage, Ransom Everglades and Carrollton ahead of Nature Coast.
"Right now, 5-8 is separated by 30 points, so it's real close after fourth," indicated Coach Milholland. "This group is capable of fifth. Like everybody else we have to have a good day to be able to compete."
Since none of the Lady Sharks have ever competed at a meet of this caliber, Milholland explained what he's doing to calm nerves.
"I make a lot of jokes and really just tell the girls, everything will be OK," he said. "Once the (starting) gun goes off, the kids will settle in.
"Earlier this year at Wiregrass, I noticed we were not ready to run. The thing that separates this group from our boys team is they all listen and listen well.
"If I ask them to catch this kid or that kid while they're on the course, they'll do it."
By the Numbers: NCT's All-Time Boys Cross-Country State Results
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YR CLASS PLACE COACH
2011 2A 5th/24 teams Eric Milholland
2010 3A 20th/12 teams Eric Milholland
2008 2A 13th/24 teams Armen Merjanian
2007 2A 14th/24 teams Armen Merjanian