Even the best of teams can sometimes lose its way, and perhaps for a moment or two last year that was the case for the Fort Myers girls cross country team.
Still, it was nothing a week-long retreat into the mountains of Gatlinburg, Tennessee couldn’t cure.
“All us being together in a cabin together for a week,” Fort Myers junior Kristlin Gear said, “either we were going to be miserable and not get along, or we’ll make the best of the situation.”
That the Green Wave did.
First year head coach Rob Strong, who took over for longtime coach Kelly Heinzman-Britton, brought 22 runners to cross country camp in a resort town most known for its connection with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
There, the Green Wave ran every day — finding new meaning to the term “hill work” — and found an identity that centered on the belief that they could compete, yet again, for a state title.
“We were gone for a week,” Strong said, “And that was the conversation. That was the goal. We want to be in the mix to win a state title.”
A season ago, Fort Myers came up short in the Class 3A race in Tallahassee, finishing second overall behind Creekside. But heading into the 2015 season, there’s real hope the Green Wave can eclipse that performance, winning their first girls state cross country title in school history.
Early projections have Fort Myers as an early favorite, along with Ponte Vedra and Fort Walton Beach.
Back from last year’s team are four of its scoring five, led by Gear (PR of 18:46) and followed closely by sophomore Abbey Fisher (18:50), junior Sidney Oakes-Lottridge (19:46) and senior Taylor Morrello (19:54).
Strong is quick to point out that any number of girls could challenge for starting positions, and of the 12 members on varsity, it’s anyone’s guess where the team will actually end up.
“I push 40 is just as important as No. 1,” Strong said of his roster. “I want you here just as much as I want Krissy here. So the girls do the same thing. Just being part of it, that 40th girl, they know they matter. That’s the atmosphere is here.”
Gear thinks as many as 10 to 11 girls could ultimately end up running below 20 minutes, including Grace Paul, Jenna Fedec, Shelby Guttery, Madison Wagoner, Caroline Mackenzie and Evangelical Christian School transfer Grace McDonald.
Over the summer, Strong said, a large portion of his experienced runners ran six days a week, starting as early as 6:30 a.m. on the roads downtown, on McGregor, or around the school. Younger runners were afforded a few more days off. Still, Stronger said, many were consistent throughout.
“I’m really optimistic about this season,” he said.
Strong himself came from Cypress Lake, where he was an eight year head coach of cross country. Last year as a distance coach in track and field at Fort Myers, he worked with boys’ coach Yancy Palmer and took away key insight.
This fall, for example, he started a 2K time trial at Lakes Park along with Palmer’s boys’ team.
It yielded impressive performances all around. And by Saturday, at the Caloosahatchee Invitational held by Riverdale, it gave the Green Wave an idea of the season ahead of them. They finished five runners inside the first 12 spots, outscoring second-place Charlotte by 42 points.
“I think it let us realize that those things being said about us are real,” Strong said. “It let us realize that it’s a possibility. When they saw that, it gave them confidence.”
Girls cross country district previews
Contenders: Fort Myers
Sleepers: North Fort Myers, Charlotte, Cypress Lake, Ida Baker
Runners to watch: Kristlin Gear (Jr., Fort Myers), Kayla Easterly (Jr., North Fort Myers), Abbey Fisher (So., Fort Myers), Sidney Oakes-Lottridge (Jr., Fort Myers), Keschel Hernandez (Sr., Ida Baker), Selena Leon (So., Cypress Lake)
Outlook: Can the Green Wave top their region and state runner-up finishes in 2014? If last year’s times are any indication, it’s possible. Fort Myers retains its No. 1 and 2 runners in Gear and Fisher and remains balanced across the board. North Fort Myers has potential, but the Knights, along with Charlotte, Cypress Lake and Ida Baker will likely be looking up most of the year.
Contenders: Estero, Palmetto Ridge, Barron Collier, Naples
Sleepers: Gulf Coast
Runners to watch: Breeana Salcedo (Sr., Estero), Devin Molloy (Jr., Barron Collier), Daley Cline (Sr., Estero), Rebecca Shakour (Jr., Naples), Megan Giovanniello (Jr., Estero), Sarina Francis (Jr., Gulf Coast)
Outlook: If they’re up to form, you won’t get a better 1-2-3 punch than Cline, Giovanniello and Salcedo. New Estero head coach Ben Pignatone retains three of Lee County’s best runners from a season ago, which makes the Wildcats a real threat at the district, region and state level. But with Barron Collier, Palmetto Ridge and Naples entering the new district, it will be fiercely competitive.
Contenders: Lely, LaBelle, Immokalee
Sleepers: Bishop Verot, Clewiston, Dunbar
Runners to watch: Selena Velasquez (Jr., Immokalee), Ana Arreola (Sr., LaBelle), Becky Lapp (Sr., LaBelle), Esmerelda Rodriguez (Jr., LaBelle), Izzy Rodriguez, (So., Bishop Verot); Maura Rose Poling (Jr., Lely)
Outlook: Without Lemon Bay, this is a three-team race between Lely, LaBelle and Immokalee at the top. The Cowgirls clinched a berth in state as a team a year ago, but will need to work a bit harder to regain foothold at that level. Lely was tops in 3A-12 in 2014 and presents an unenviable challenge, along with Immokalee.
Contenders: Community School of Naples, Evangelical Christian School
Sleepers: Canterbury, SFCA, Marco Island Academy
Runners to watch: Lindsay Tomaini (Jr., CSN), Sophie Barry (Sr., CSN), Kendall Flaharty (Fr., Canterbury), Elizabeth Wetmore, (Fr., ECS), Sierra Oliveira (8th, ECS), Olivia Watt (Fr., Marco Island)
Outlook: The Sentinels lost four of their top five runners, including district, region and state champ Sarah Candiano, who’s now at Florida State. So it will be a much tougher road, especially with Community School of Naples returning three of its top four placers from districts in 2014.
Boys cross country district previews
Contenders: Fort Myers, Charlotte, Port Charlotte
Sleepers: Riverdale, Cape Coral, Mariner, Ida Baker
Runners to watch: Stephen Fedec (Sr., Fort Myers), Zack Roussel (Jr., Riverdale), Josh Kennedy (Jr., Fort Myers), Marshall Dillon (Sr., Charlotte), Lesme Ruiz (So., Riverdale), Michael Johnson (Fr., North Fort Myers)
Outlook: Kennedy and Fedec, top 10 finishers last year in District 3A-11, give the Green Wave a solid duo to begin the season as they look capture another district title. Potentially, though, either could vie for a individual championship, too, if Charlotte’s Marshall Dillon doesn’t get in the way first. Expect the big teams like Fort Myers, Charlotte and Port Charlotte to vie for the district.
Contenders: Estero, Barron Collier, Gulf Coast
Sleepers: Naples, Golden Gate
Runners to watch: Arye Beck (Jr., Estero), Jack Matute (Jr., Gulf Coast), Chad Husted (Sr., Barron Collier), Jacob Dorn (Sr., Estero), Jordan Russo (Sr., Barron Collier)
Outlook: The Wildcats were second in District 3A-11 to Fort Myers a season ago and return two of their top three runners in Beck and Dorn. But Barron Collier and Gulf Coast will provide challenges. The Cougars have their top two back, while the Sharks have sub-17 minute runner Jack Matute, who was second in 3A-12 in 2014.
Contenders: LaBelle, Lely, Immokalee
Sleepers: Bishop Verot, Clewiston, Gateway Charter, Oasis, Dunbar
Runners to watch: Omar Figueroa (Sr., LaBelle), Enrique Jimenez (Sr., LaBelle), Alejandro Ruiz (Sr., Immokalee), Dalton Hyser (Sr., LaBelle), Tommy Arcentales (Jr., Bishop Verot), Trevor McDaniels (So., Dunbar)
Outlook: LaBelle’s entire scoring five returns from last year’s fourth place finish at states, so head coach Jef Frost is hopeful the Cowboys can compete for a state championship in 2015. Immokalee will be talented, while others will be rebuilding.
Contenders: Community School of Naples, Evangelical Christian School, St. John Neumann
Sleepers: First Baptist Academy, SFCA, Seacrest Country Day
Runners to watch: Jonas Elliott (Jr., ECS), Blake Burchett (Sr., Seacreast Country Day), Evan Williams (Jr., SFCA), Hunter Puzak (Fr., CSN), Jacob Winkelman (Jr., FBA), Zach Barry (8th, CSN)
Outlook: Evangelical Christian School junior Jonas Elliott is the defending District A-11 champ, but the Sentinels will find themselves competing with a tough new district among the likes of Community School of Naples, St. John Neumann and First Baptist Academy.