ESTERO — The Lakewood Ranch girls cross country team will have some unexpected company when it travels to Tallahassee for next weekend's state cross country meet.
For the first time since 2005, the Lakewood Ranch boys will be going thanks to a dogfight finish that enabled them to grab a qualifying spots at Friday's Class 3A-Region 3 meet at Estero Community Park.
The top six teams at region advance to state, and the Lakewood Ranch boys finished fifth. The girls breezed to second place to earn another trip.
"It's been a long time coming," said Brian Thomas, who has been the boys coach since the program stared. "In 2006, we graduated 16 seniors off the team and to get the number of boys with quality time to come together has been difficult. We have been crawling our way back."
What made things a bit astonishing is the boys' top finisher was Mitch Arnold, who placed 21st. He has been the Mustangs' top runner all season, but got a lot of help this time.
Arnold finished in 17 minutes and 38.4 seconds (17:38.40). Steven Estes was second for Lakewood Ranch, placing 22nd overall (17:48).
Josh Napier was next for Lakewood Ranch finishing 31st (18:05.70). The other two Mustangs to score were sophomore George Dabbiero (47th, 18:27.60) and senior Tyler McWilliams (48th, 18:30.70).
"The key today was our depth. We didn't have a runner in the top 20 and so the fifth runner was critical for us. It was a real fight to get those last two qualifying spots," Thomas said.
The girls had a different kind of battle. They conceded first place to powerhouse Estero, then fought off several strong squads to earn the runner-up spot.
"We put it in their ear all week that they needed to be aggressive and not let up so we could get a solid finish," Lakewood Ranch girls coach Kristina Bratton said. "I told them they would have to fight for it (second place) and be mentally prepared for the cold weather."
The Mustangs were led by their two senior stalwarts; Kristin Zarrella placed sixth overall (19:49.10), and Natalie Novak (20:10.0) was two spots behind.
Lakewood Ranch's other scorers were Katie Wray (16th, 20:34.50), Michelle Last (19th, 20:47.40) and Julia Ortiz (20th, 20:49.90).
"I am excited about going to states. The girls rose to the occasion," Bratton said. "They are a goofy group sometimes, but serious when they have to be. When they stepped to the line today they were ready for business."
Though the weather bothered some of the runners, Novak and Zarrella embraced it.
"We were able to push a little harder because it was cold. It makes it easier to run because it's a lot harder to run in the heat," Novak said.
"We were running the same course that we did in districts and the weather made it more interesting. It wasn't so monotonous and you don't get tired so easily and you are not sweating," Zarrella said.
The lone individual state qualifier from Manatee County was Bayshore's Canaan Meester-Kitterman. Individuals who placed in the top 15 qualified for state, and he placed eighth.
"I was just trying to get into that top 15 so I could get to states. That's all I wanted to do," said Meester-Kitterman, who crossed the line in 16:58.9. "It feels great. I was racing with some really fast guys and just decided to give it my all. I got into eighth place after about a mile and stayed here. The course is hard and I didn't like the cold. The cold burns my lungs. I prefer the heat."
Estero easily won the girls race with 39 points. The other state qualifiers were Lakewood Ranch (69), Naples Gulf Coast (98), Fort Myers (135), Naples (173) and Cypress Lake (176). As expected, Fort Myers Emily Edwards won the race (18:37.70), and Estero's Kacy Smith was second (19:07).
The top six boy's teams were Fort Myers (46), Naples (54), Estero (79), Palmetto Ridge (109), Lakewood Ranch (156) and Seminole Osceola (169). Carlos Miranda from Naples Palmetto Ridge won the race with a time of 16:08.20, and Aesop Brown from Fort Myers was second (16:13.90).