Kristin Zarrella's final race as a Lakewood Ranch Mustang was the most rewarding.
She topped the field to win a gold medal in the 800-meter run at the Class 3A state track meet in Jacksonville. What a way to cap a decorated four-year track and cross-country career for the area's premier program.
"Thousands of miles of work went into this," Zarrella said. "... I couldn't think of a better way to end my four years. It's just been an incredible experience."
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Her state championship is the major reason Zarrella is the 2013 Bradenton Herald Girls Track Athlete of the Year. She adds that honor to the two Herald Girls Cross Country Athlete of the Year awards she collected, including one earlier this school year.
"It's definitely an honor," said Zarrella, who has signed to run track and cross country at Southern Mississippi. "We have so much talent, even within my own school. Then when you bring all the other schools in, it definitely is an honor to be called the athlete of the year."
Zarrella was an instrumental cog in the Mustang machine. She said she was pushed by her talented teammates.
One of those teammates was fellow senior Olivia Ortiz, another standout who worked her way back from a broken femur suffered at last year's state meet to compete and finish ninth in the 3,200 run at the 2013 state meet -- just her fourth of the season.
"We wanted to run for her," Zarrella said of Ortiz, "just keep it going and keep a good tradition at Lakewood Ranch. We just produce good athletes. ... It was incredible for her to keep going."
But it was Zarrella who led the Mustangs during this track season. She ultimately netted a gold medal when she blazed past the 800 field at the University of North Florida track in 2 minutes, 16.45 seconds.
"She's a very strong runner," Lakewood Ranch head coach Kristina Bratton said of Zarrella. "I know she's been running since she was little, running AAU track and USA track, so I knew that she had some experience competing and working hard and putting in the extra work. To me, that really stood out."
The building blocks of her strong senior campaign were all the miles she logged in practice and offseason workouts. Zarrella, who finished 19th in the state cross country meet to lead the Mustangs to a fifth-place finish, said she prefers track to cross country because that season is about working on speed.
The year-round effort, especially during humid summer months when each team member attempts to run at least 400 miles, enabled Zarrella to become a beast in the 800 run.
"You just have to realize that even though it's Florida and it's 90 degrees -- it's hot -- you still have to give it your all," Zarrella said. "Each day in practice, even though you don't see yourself improving, overall you do. So you just really have to focus on every individual practice and making every day a hard effort."