BOYS CROSS COUNTRY
Deep Eagles ready
to challenge for
BY TONY CASTRO
With Hernando County Runner of the Year Trevor Foley’s departure to Citrus Park Christian, his third school in your years, who’ll ascend to the top rung individually?
Sharks: Milholland out, Hall in
From 2005-10, the Nature Coast Technical boys cross country program was in chaos.
That’s what happens when a program rolls through five coaches in six seasons.
The turnaround began when veteran Eric Milholland provided stability by taking the reins from 2010-17.
NCT responded to his steady hand.
Prior to his arrival, the Sharks won exactly one meet.
After Milholland took over, NCT added 14 team trophies.
In the interim, Milholland’s troops claimed five county crowns across seven seasons, the school’s first two district and regional titles and most importantly five straight visits to the FHSAA State Finals.
But after two unproductive campaigns in 2015-16, Milholland stepped down and tapped his protégé, Zach Hall, as his successor.
Hall takes over a program with three returning varsity lettermen including: senior Lenny Iacopelli, junior Harrison Ryczek and sophomore Ian Escamilla.
None of three returnees were named All-County and the Sharks graduated its two top threats: Gabe Guillen, who finished ranked seventh in the county, and Matthew Ralsky, who finished the season ranked 12th overall. Another senior, Zachary Gates, closed out 2016 ranked 14th.
Iacopelli, who is expected to carry the load this year, competed in six meets last fall and ranked 13th overall behind a personal best 18:52.20.
Varsity newcomers include: senior Mason Orellana, junior Christian Lindo, and sophomores Tyrese Brown, Vincente Maglia, Gage Sugg and Colby Walz.
In the season-opening meet at Inverness’ Whispering Pines Park, Iacopelli set the pace placing 14th, out of 110 runners, in 18:59.12.
An energetic Coach Hall, who teaches biology, sees a lot of talent and attitude.
“I think this group has a shot at the county crown,“ insisted Hall. “Honestly, with Lenny and Ian, I could some 17s with them. Ryczek is capable of running in the 17s, too.”
As far as the team strength, Hall points to his three returnees, “Our three returnees will help tremendously. Orellana will probably settle in as our No. 4 runner. I think everybody else is competing for No. 5.”
In practice, Hall is searching for consistency and the guys getting better every day.
In crystal balling the county picture, “I think it’ll be a tight team battle. Hernando left the door open losing its top two runners. I see Springstead with some fire in their eyes. They’ve got a bigger team, but I see a tight battle for first.”
Surveying 2A-7, “Not sure,“ explained Hall. “Citrus should have a heck of team back, though I didn‘t see their 2-3 runners at Whispering Pines. Crystal River returns the entire team and Ridgewood should have their top five back.
“…It’ll boil down to who has the best on that day.”
According to Hall, NCT’s success is predicated on “Our No. 5 guy, whoever that is, has to step up. That’s the way I see it all season.”
Is this the year of the Eagles?
F.W. Springstead Head Coach Brandon Wright enters his eighth season seeking the Eagles’ first-ever county title since 1990.
Under Wright, SHS hasn’t captured any of the 55 races its competed in.
The Mariner Boulevard thinclads haven’t one race this century, spanning 92 races.
On the bright side of otherwise bleak panorama, SHS returns 10 of its 13 runners, who competed in at least one varsity 5K race last fall.
The team’s leader, senior Matt Levonick, is a returning All-County performer.
Levonick, however, was injured last fall when he stepped on a root and hasn’t been the same.
The injury tarnished what was supposed to be a breakout season for him in track and field.
He opened the season still not 100 percent as evidenced by his 73rd-place finish, out of 110 runners, at the Whispering Pines Park in Inverness.
The Spring Hill distance runners are banking on Levonick’s healthy return.
In the interim, sophomore Joseph Ostroski placed a team-best 31st-place effort in Citrus County meet followed by senior Will Osborn (55th), sophomore Bryce Montoya (56th), senior William Marquis (70th), junior John Parker (80th).
“The biggest question we have right now is Matt’s health,” indicated Coach Wright. “His Achilles is not major, but we’ll hold him out at Lecanto.
“Matt wants to be so good, he didn’t heed the warnings we had for him to slack off the training,” added Wright. “Last year’s injury humbled him. In the long run, it might have been the best thing to happen to him. He’s still our No. 1; it (injury) just set him back a little bit.”
Wright praised Ostroski’s emergence.
“Joe PR’ed at Whispering Pines. He’s got the potential to play a big role. Will (Osborn) can step up, too. He’s all about want to. He’s got to get over his own mental barrier.”
As far as the team’s strength, “Our depth is our strength,” admitted Wright. “We could have seven kids go under 20 minutes.“
On the flip side, health or lack thereof has haunted SHS.
“Over the last few years it’s been about our health. We’ve been fragile at times. Staying healthy for the stretch run is priority No. 1,” noted Wright.
As far as the county picture, Wright didn‘t stutter, “It’s ours for the taking. I see Springstead being No. 1. I know Nature Coast has trained well and by no means will this be a cake walk.”
On predicting 3A-7, “We haven‘t seen Land O‘ Lakes, but they’re always good. Lecanto looked pretty strong. I heard Mitchell lost a lot and Wesley Chapel lost their best guy,“ addressed Wright.
“I think we’ll be in the conversation, but we’ve gotta get out of districts,” he added. “Success will be if we’re peaking in October.”
Hornets: Year 7
Last fall, Weeki Wachee pushed both Brandon Boggs and Anand “Yeatesh” Raghunandan to regionals.
Boggs, a senior and Raghunandan, a junior, return as All-County selections.
The questions arise, however, around the remaining runners.
Another returnee, senior Jonathan Helm, ranked 29th in the final standings after six races.
The remainder of the squad, according girls coach Patrick Skipper, is unproven featuring: junior Josh Coley, sophomores Jeffrey Crooks, Jonathan Gramazia, Jason Novak and Josh Szewzek and freshmen Deven Carlsen, Jaiden Raghunandan, Seth Tarbox and Cole Vedder.
“This is our best boys’ team,” pointed out Skipper. “We’ve got some depth with Boggs and Yeatesh. I see Tarbox and Coley pushing for 3-4, but the key is finding a fifth runner.
“We’ll be successful if we get the whole team to go to regionals; we’ve never done that.”
Fresh faces dot Central
All three Bears, who competed last season, graduated.
Their coach, Tracey Groshans, did not return.
Enter Kevin Ballard.
Ballard, who has never coached cross country, is expected to field a seven-member roster, lined with first-time runners.
At Whispering Pines, the Bears did not post a team score, as freshman Fritz Ashby placed 62nd in 21:27.99 and junior Hector Portillo placed 105th in 27:08.62.
CHS’girls coach Kris Brooks said of the boys’ squad, “The strength is their work ethic. Their goal each week is to get better; that’s it.”
HHS: Lose top 2
After a 16th-place team finish, out of 24 teams in the Class 2A State Finals in Leon County in 2016, it’s been a tumultuous off-season at the Bell Avenue campus.
Foley, the Hernando County Runner of the Year in two of the past three seasons, transferred to 1A-6 Citrus Park Christian, after last season.
HHS’ second-best threat, Ryan Bell, graduated during commencement exercises.
That duo, both All-County selections, finished 1-2 in the final county rankings.
The Leopards’ lone 2016 All-County selection returnee, junior Ross Stalcup, is coming off a all-star in track and field.
Veteran skipper David Wilson, coming off being named Coach of the Year in 2016, opted against turning in any schedules or rosters for this story.
All-County Boys Cross Country Selections
– Compiled by TONY CASTRO
Runner of the Year – Trevor Foley (Hernando).
Coach of the Year – David Wilson (Hernando).
2016 FINAL HERNANDO COUNTY
BOYS CROSS COUNTRY HONOR ROLL STATS
– Compiled by TONY CASTRO