SARASOTA -- The last time the Lakewood Ranch girls competed in the Manasota Track Club Invitational its current two top runners were freshmen, and the Mustangs won the meet.
After a two-year absence, Lakewood Ranch returned and those girls, now-seniors Kristin Zarrella and Natalie Novak, sparked the Mustangs to a victory again Saturday morning on a soggy course at McIntosh Middle School.
Nearly everyone's time was slower than normal because of the muddy course, which is a tough run when it's in good shape.
Zarrella, who won the race as a freshman, finished second in a time of 20 minutes, 02.89 seconds, for the 3.1-mile course. Novak was sixth (20:21.69). Emily Edwards of Fort Myers dominated the race, finishing first in 18:36.09.
Lakewood Ranch placed three girls in the top 10 and five in the top 14 to score 45 points, easily outpacing second-place Englewood Lemon Bay (89).
"I am OK with finishing second. I knew Emily Edwards was going to be here, and she is obviously great competition," Zarrella said. "Second was my goal. This course was muddy, but that's what makes it fun. There were a lot of turns and mud. It was a mix of everything. Winning the meet is a confidence-booster for our team. We needed it because we've been going to a lot of bigger meets, and it's nice to know in the area Lakewood Ranch is still up there."
For Lakewood Ranch, Michelle Last placed 10th (20:52.19), Katie Wray was 13th (20.55.48), and freshman Julia Ortiz was 14th (20:57.67).
Ortiz, the younger sister of Lakewood Ranch's heralded runner Oliva Ortiz, had reduced her time in every race this season until this meet. Olivia Ortiz is out for the season with an injury.
"I pretty much knew we were going to win because we have been competing against much harder teams," Lakewood Ranch head girls coach Kristina Bratton said. "It was kind of muddy, so we didn't get any PRs (personal records). We have been dealing with little, minor injuries, and right now we are doing good getting ready for districts. Kristin has a lot of room for improvement. When I look at her, I see more potential to get faster."
Cardinal Mooney's Grace Casagrande placed eighth (20:46.09). Lakewood Ranch's Elizabeth Chandler was 22nd (21:45.90), and Lauren Csubak of Saint Stephen's was 30th (22:11.61).
This was the first area race for Lakewood Ranch this season. Longtime Mustangs boys cross country coach Brian Thomas said the boys and girls teams needed a little break.
"We've been traveling so much and been out of the area for most of the season that we've been trying to taper down a little," Thomas said. "We've had some nagging injuries and wanted to stay local. It was a little shorter Saturday for the kid, and there was some competition here with Fort Myers."
The Lakewood Ranch boys turned in the best performance among Manatee County teams, placing seventh. The only other local team in the top 10 was Manatee, which finished 10th.
The top Manatee County runner was Bayshore junior Canaan Meester-Kitterman, who placed 12th with a time of 17:24.37. Meester-Kitterman won the race last year.
Next was Mitch Arnold of Lakewood Ranch, who ran the course in 17:45.67 to place 25th.
Manatee High's top runner was Chris Pate, who placed 39th in a time of 18:08.33. The only other top-50 performer from Manatee County was Lakewood Ranch's Quintin Wampler, who placed 49th with a time of 18:25.11. Another top 50 local runner was Out-Of-Door Academy's Peter Runge, who placed 39th in a time of 18:03.07.
Overall, it was a rough day for the local boys teams. Among the 23 schools competing, the bottom five finishers were from the area, including three from Manatee County.