Once again Lakewood Ranch High School senior John Rivera ran in the lead group before posting a top-five finish.
Once again, the Mustangs’ pack crossed within seconds of each other.
And, once again, Lakewood Ranch is a region champion, adding to titles it won in 2001 and 2003.
The Mustangs edged runner-up Lithia Newsome 85-89 to earn the Class 4A-Region 3 team title and advance to next weekend’s state championship meet in Tallahassee.
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“We made states in 2013 and 2014, but we didn’t make it in 2015; that left a bitter taste in these guys’ mouths,” Lakewood Ranch head coach Bryan Thomas said. “The boys have been running well all season long, and we hope to put it together for states.”
Saint Stephen’s nearly joined Lakewood Ranch as region champs. The Falcons finished second in Class 1A-Region 2, three points behind Oak Hall, 97-100. Oak Hall placed four runners in the top 20; Saint Stephen’s countered with four in the top 30.
“I think we got our top five all under 19:20, that’s everyone running fast,” junior Henry Howell said. “As a team, we killed it and Andrew has pushed me, personally, every race.”
Howell led the Falcons, finishing fifth in 17 minutes, 39.79 seconds, seven seconds ahead of Andrew Csubak (ninth).
“Last year we finished fourth. This year we’re up to second, and we’re only three points out of first,” Saint Stephen’s coach JD Wolcott said. “I look at that as something we’re mentally proud of. It’s not something we expected.”
Cardinal Mooney was eighth and Out-of-Door Academy, 10th. Neither advanced to states. Junior Kai Soderberg was the top ODA finisher (14th, 18:18.09). Tyler Ross led Cardinal Mooney (17th, 18:27.49).
While Saint Stephen’s title bid was fueled by its depth, Lakewood Ranch’s title was delivered by its tightly bunched depth.
Kyle Wray and Jonathan Reid finished 15th and 16th, respectively, separated by six seconds: 17:15.79 and 17:21.74, respectively.
“This was a tough course and we were going for points, trying to stick with some of the other top teams,” said Wray, a junior. “I felt good last week and it carried over here, now I hope I can go even faster at states.”
Brice Easton was close behind in 18th (17:27.06). Andrew Dean logged the fifth score for the Mustangs at 31st. Newsome’s lowest placed scoring runner finished 30th, but the Mustangs’ middle three finished in front of the Newsome middle three by just enough cumulatively to deliver the title.
“We weren’t running for time today; we were running for place,” Thomas said. “We knew we had a shot at winning the region, but it was all about breaking up (Newsome’s) very strong pack. The boys showed a lot of maturity and patience. It takes confidence to not run with (Newsome) at the beginning but wait to get them at the end.
Thomas was confident the strategy would succeed when, at the mile mark, Rivera led all of Newsome’s runners but the next four Mustangs were bunched right behind Newsome’s pack.
“That first mile we had a big pack together,” Rivera said. “I was kind of waiting on (Durant’s) Haftom (Fliegelman), expecting him to go out early, but by about the two-mile mark, the group started to spread out.”
At the 3-mile mark, Fliegelman was just in front of Sarasota’s Jordan Gonzalez with Rivera in a small group just behind. Gonzalez outkicked Fliegelman at the end to win it in 16:36.48. Rivera held on for fifth in 16:53.92. The local rivals have now split the district and regional titles and will take their battle to the state meet.
In the Class 2A, region 3 meet, Bayshore’s Brandon Aaron and Adan Lopez finished 79th and 92nd, respectively.
Andy Warrener contributed to this story.
When: Saturday, Nov. 5, first race 8 a.m.
Where: Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee
Admission: $9, parking $5