LAKEWOOD RANCH — Kristina Bratton is arguably the best female runner to come out of Manatee County.
She qualified for the state cross country meet multiple times in high school, was a nationally renowned runner at the University of Florida and ran professionally for Nike.
Despite that impressive resumé, Bratton is learning something from the girls on her Lakewood Ranch cross country team, which will participate in the Class 3A state meet Saturday in Tallahassee.
It's called fun.
Bratton said she didn't have much of that when she was training. It was serious stuff all the time, particularly at Florida and in the pro ranks and even at Bradenton Christian, where she and her sister, Camille, qualified for state in cross country.
That was a long time ago. Bratton is 31 years old and in her first year as the Mustangs' head coach.
"These girls have fun, and it's different for me. It's nice. They joke around, and some are pranksters. I have to be on my toes all the time," Bratton said. "One day they attacked me with water balloons, really got to me. I didn't see it coming. I have to watch out for that. But what's nice is they are all business when it comes to training and the race."
Kristina and her sister went to the state cross country meet as individuals and were focused on individual goals. It's a lot more fun to go as a team, she says.
"For me, it was more about trying to get into the top 10 and meeting my personal goals," Bratton said. "These girls are always laughing and giggling. I wasn't that type of person when I was young. I was real serious. I did my practice and left. Going as a team is a lot better because you have other people around to pump you up and depend on you."
The Lakewood Ranch girls are making their fifth consecutive trip to the state cross country meet. This is only the second time (first since 2000) the girls and boys team qualified together. The boys haven't been there since 2005.
It's the fourth trip for seniors Kristin Zarrella and Natalie Novak, the top runners on the girls squad. The rest of the scorers for most of the season have been Katie Wray, Michelle Last and freshman Julia Ortiz.
Zarrella's best finish at the state cross country meet was fourth as a freshman. Novak's best place was 15th, also in her freshman year. The rise of other teams in 3A has made things tougher, the girls said.
"We know how to have fun. We frequently play jokes on each other. We do goofy stuff all the time after we get our work done," Novak said. "It's exciting to go to states again, and we are all planning on getting our best performances and going out on a high note. My goal is to be in the top 20."
Zarrella has been the team's best runner all season and was the only one to break 20 minutes at the region meet, finishing with a time of 19 minutes and 49 seconds.
"It's awesome to be going back to states for a fourth time," Zarrella said. "The race is wide open, and it depends on how well I perform. The course is pretty hilly compared to others, but there is a lot of downhill. A goal for us as a team is definitely top five."
The girls are going without senior Olivia Ortiz, last year's 3A individual champion who missed the season as she recovers from a broken femur suffered at the state track and field meet. Her situation has provided extra motivation for her sister, Julia.
"Olivia has helped me a lot with my running strategies," Julia said. "I am running for her because she has been a huge inspiration and I know how tough it has been for her not to compete this year. This is her one and only true love."
Estero is the overwhelming favorite in the girls race, and Fort Walton Beach is considered a strong team. The rest of the top six or seven spots are up for grabs, and the Lakewood Ranch girls hope to get one of them.
The Lakewood Ranch boys program is in its 15th year, all under head coach Brian Thomas, who was the head coach at Southeast the prior 11 years.
This is the boys' fifth trip to the state meet. In '05, they finished 23rd in the state. They finished fifth in the region last week (top six qualify for state), and the top runner all season has been Mitch Arnold.
"We have a great group of kids. They are hard workers, and in this sport hard work pays off," Thomas said. "The boys finished seventh at regions last year and their goal during the offseason was to make it to states. A good day would be top 20 for the boys, but I wouldn't be shocked if we did better."
The Saint Stephen's girls team finished sixth at its Class 1A region meet to grab the last qualifying spot. The Falcons are led by Lauren Csubak, who placed 13th at the region meet.
The top individual qualifier from the area is Bayshore junior Canaan Meester-Kitterman, who placed eighth at the Class 3A-Region 3 meet.
Area individual qualifiers for Class 1A are Cardinal Mooney's Grace Casagrande and Cal Turner Davidson and Peter Runge from Out-Of-Door Academy.