LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The cross country season began on a bittersweet note for Kristin Zarrella.
The Lakewood Ranch senior has been thrust into a leadership role in a situation she wishes never happened.
Mustangs phenom Olivia Ortiz, the reigning Class 3A state champion, broke her femur in last spring's state track meet and is out for the season.
Lakewood Ranch was looking for someone to step up in her place, and the natural choice was Zarrella, who has been on the varsity four years and has been running competitively since she was 9 years old.
"Olivia is irreplaceable. She is such a great athlete and person," Zarrella said. "I've learned so much from her, and I am just going to take that and apply it and make myself a better runner. It's not a matter of replacing her. It's a matter of stepping up and giving my best to try and fill the void."
When Zarrella was a fresh
man, she was the golden child on the Mustangs cross country team. Though the 17-year-old is more into shorter-distance running now, she would like to recapture that old magic.
Zarrella finished 36th at last year's state cross country meet, covering the 3.1 miles in 19 minutes, 52.60 seconds. Her classmate, Natalie Novak, was 29th.
But Zarrella has the 15th-best time of all the Class 3A runners who returned this year and aims to get back to where she was a few years ago. She ran her personal best as a sophomore at 18:27, which would have been the 10th-best time at last year's state meet.
"The past two years have not been as successful as I hoped, and this is my year to lay it all on the line," Zarrella said. "My summer went really well. I didn't go to any meets, but I went to a cross country camp at FSU. My favorite race now is the 800, and I've been working a lot on that, but cross country brings a nice change."
Zarrella also has had her share of injuries. She said people don't understand how tough the sport can be. She compares it to football.
"Injuries are inevitable in running," Zarrella says. "You are always pounding the pavement and taking hits. And runners never tell you when they have a shin injury or something like that. You have to learn to expect that if you are going to get into long-distance running.
"Running is hurting the whole time, and sometimes it's hard to distinguish the injury that could lead to something like a break or if it's just soreness."
It happened to her this past Saturday at the prestigious Barron Collier Invitational in Naples.
Zarrella was among the top five runners and cramped up with about 300 meters to go. She fell and by the time she recovered was not able to finish among the top Ranch girls.
New Ranch head girls coach Kristina Bratton, who used to run professionally in the 800 meters, said she is not worried.
"I had that happen to me. It could be a lack of potassium. We will straighten it out before Saturday's meet the University of Florida," Bratton said. "She is our number one runner and would've finished in the top five if she hadn't cramped up. As long as you jump on this quickly and correct it, things will be fine and that is what we are doing."
In the two-mile relay at the state track meet her sophomore year, Zarrella collapsed on the track, ending her run. It's just part of the deal, she says.
"It's scary to think about, that is the only part that bothers me. But you just have to accept it and run fearless, almost angry, and that's what I am doing this year. We can't get to that (high) level if we don't train hard. We try not to overtrain, but sometimes it happens."