LAKEWOOD RANCH -- For the past four years, Kristin Zarrella and Olivia Ortiz have been the faces of the Lakewood Ranch girls track and field program.
They have logged hundreds of miles, won a cache of medals and provided enough drama to fill a Hollywood movie script.
There have been cheers, and there have been tears. Emotions swarming around the two seniors have run the gamut and indications are it will be the same in Friday's Class 3A state meet at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville.
It was on this track a year ago that Ortiz's dreams were shattered, along with her leg, when she broke her femur 50 yards from the finish line of the 3,200-meter run.
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After surgery and a year of rehab, she has made it back to state, grabbing the final qualifying spot in last week's 3,200 meter run at the 3A-Region 3 meet in Punta Gorda.
"I remember waking up from surgery and asking, 'Will I ever run again?'" Ortiz said. "It will be a very emotional day for me to be
running on this track. The last time I was there I was carried off in an ambulance. I was in my prime, running my best. But I can't get too emotional. I don't want it to affect my performance. I want to prove I am back."
Ortiz turned in a time of 11 minutes, 36.27 seconds at her region meet, which gives her the 10th-best time among the 3A state participants. To get on the podium, she has to finish in the top eight. It seems like tough chore.
"Never count me out. My endurance is not where it can be, but there will be so much adrenalin flowing on the track you never know what can happen," Ortiz said. "Most people are not expecting me to do much, and that inspires me. I am going to try and stay within sight of the leaders, and we will see what happens."
Zarrella is in a different role. She has turned in the best time of all the participants in the 800 run (2:14.06) and is considered the favorite to win her first individual state title. She started her career running the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, but the 800 has proven to be her best event.
"It's kind of nerve-racking because I have a target on my back, but I am excited. This is my best chance to win a state title," Zarrella said. "I cannot leave anything behind. I like the 800 because after doing so many distance races you look to run the shortest. It's a gutsy race and takes a lot of effort. There are a lot of tactics involved. Each of the 200 meters has a special strategy."
This will be the fourth time Zarrella and Ortiz have participated in an individual event at the state meet. They both have suffered tough injuries at state and provided inspiration to each other.
As a sophomore, Zarrella ran too hard in a relay, cramped up and had to stop and be helped off the track before she reached the finish line.
Lakewood Ranch head track coach Kristina Bratton sees Zarrella and Ortiz in two distinct ways, but both have provided incredible inspiration.
"The time for Kristin kind of puts a marker on her. They will be looking at her as the target to beat, but I think she will handle it well," Bratton said. "The key for her is to be patient and run her race. You don't want her to go out too fast. I think she can win because she has not reached her full potential, and I think she can open it up on Friday."
Bratton has equal admiration for Ortiz but sees her goals as a little different, if only because she hasn't had time to get herself back into her best shape. The University of Alabama signee has competed in only four races this spring.
"It's Olivia's redemption. It's hard to have high expectations because she is not in top shape. I am excited she even made it to states," Bratton said. "It's difficult for me to say how she will do, but I know she will leave it all on the track. She knows it's her last high school race and wants to show up and give it her all."
With Ortiz and Zarrella about to close the book on their high school careers, Lakewood Ranch's Talia Falco is ready to open a new chapter. The sophomore qualified for the 100 hurdles, high jump and long jump.
The Lakewood Ranch girls 1,600 relay team placed fourth at region to qualify for state with a time of 4:08.93. The runners at regions were Ashley Platt, Michelle Last, Carolyn Super and Zarrella.
Palmetto's Jermisha Collins won the long jump at regions with a leap of 17 feet, 5 inches and qualified for the 200 dash, finishing fourth with a time of 26.01 seconds.
The Palmetto boys 1,600 relay team placed second at region, getting a nice boost from Jacquill Daniels, who filled in at anchor. The other runners were Broddrick Waters, Shaquill Harris and Elijah Burston.
Braden River senior Zac Durso finished fourth at region in the pole vault (13 feet) to qualify.