LAKEWOOD RANCH -- For the Lakewood Ranch cross country teams, it's all about next man up. Or, we should say, the next person up.
Both the girls and boys teams have had to deal with different issues involving the loss of elite runners, whether it be through graduation last year or injuries and other factors this year.
But each cleared their own hurdles and will be running in the Class 3A state cross country meet Saturday in Tallahassee.
The girls advanced despite losing standout Kristin Zarrella and Natalie Novak, who finished 19th and 26th, respectively, in last year's state meet.
There was speculation the team couldn't make it back, but a new leader with a familiar last name has evolved and sparked the return.
Julia Ortiz is only a sophomore, but she is reminding people of her older sister, Olivia, who is arguably the best female cross country runner in school history.
"Julia has become our number one and really has come into her own this season," Lakewood Ranch girls coach Kristina Bratton said. "She is feeling that nervousness before the race and has accepted the fact that she could be a runner like her sister."
Julia Ortiz finished fifth among the Lakewood Ranch girls and 70th overall at last year's state meet as a freshman running the 3.1-mile course in 20 minutes and 20.8 seconds.
"It says a lot that we lost our two best runners from last year, and we're still able to make it back to states,"
Ortiz said. "We are determined to prove that they weren't our whole team. For me, a top-20 finish would be good, but I am really looking to just turn in my best time. My sister tells me to be mentally strong, and if you start hurting during a race, you can't stop."
The Mustangs will be without their No. 2 runner, freshman, Andrea McDonald, who will be playing with the Lakewood Ranch volleyball team in the region final on Saturday.
"It's hard for me to make a prediction because Andrea won't be there," Bratton said. "Everyone is just going to have to pick up the slack and go harder. We could finish 12th if we all get personal best times."
Along with Ortiz, the Mustangs' top five figure to be Katie Wray, Michelle Last, Emily Perez and Sara Kelly. At last year's state meet, Wray finished 56h, and Last was 63rd.
The Lakewood Ranch boys team has been on a storybook run. The Mustangs got the last qualifying spot to advance out of districts on a tie-breaker and got the last qualifying spot in last week's region meet.
"The boys are excited because we were that close to ending our season at districts, and now we are going to states," boys coach Bryan Thomas said. "We were 20th last year (at state) and their goal is simple, which is to finish better than 20th." Read Corley, a junior is running cross country for the first time, has become somewhat of a surprising hero. He finished sixth among the Mustangs at districts,but was good enough to give them the points they needed to advance. At region competition, one of their top runners ran into trouble and Corley came through to give them the points they needed to advance.
"It's pretty great, but I was more impressed with our team's performance then my individual finish," Corley said. "Districts was pretty exciting. I didn't even know that guy was behind me, and it was close and ended up counting for a lot."
The Mustangs will be led by veteran senior Mitch Arnold, who has been their top runner all season. The other key runners include George Dabbiero, Josh Napier, John Rivera and Griffin Dorsey.
"It's great going back to states. We were able to re-tool from last year," Arnold said. "We knew it was going to be tough to get out of regionals after coming in fourth at districts, but we just stayed focused and when it was all over it came out in our favor."
Bayshore senior Canaan Meester-Kitterman qualified for the Class 2A Meet as an individual while Cardinal Mooney senior Grace Casagrande and junior Cal Davidson qualified for the Class 1A race
Meester-Kitterman finished second in his 2A-Region 3 meet. Casagrande was second and Davidson Tuner was sixth in their 1A-3 region meet.
"I am excited and I have a good feeling. All my training is coming into line," Meester-Kitterman said. "I am hoping to get a PB (personal best now 16:01), and my personal goal is a top-five finish. The guy who beat meet at regions (Leonel Delacruz from Immokalee) is the favorite to win states. I am going to try my best to beat him."
AREA STATE QUALIFIERS
WITH REGION, TIME, PLACE
at Apalachee Regional Park
at 10 a.m.
6. Lakewood Ranch -- 19. Mitch Arnold 17:21.80, 35. George Dabbiero 17:47.80, 48. John Rivera 18:07.00, 56. Griffin Dorsey 18:17.30, 59, Read Corley 18:21.70, 79. Brice Easton 18:42.80, 94. Josh Napier 19:20.30.
at 9:10 a.m.
5. Lakewood Ranch -- 15. Julia Ortiz 20:16.40, 22. Andrea McDonald 20:31.40, 28. Katie Wray 20:38.90, 59. Michelle Last 22:10.00, 61. Emily Perez 22:13.90, 67. Sara Kelly 22:24.90, 90. Elizabeth Chandler 23:26.10.
2. Canaan Meester-Kitterman (Bayshore) 16:54.50.
6. Cal Davidson-Turner (Cardinal Mooney) 16:38.59.
2. Grace Casagrande (Cardinal Mooney) 18:19.53.