Since his arrival from Central five seasons ago, Nature Coast Technical math instructor and cross country mentor Eric Milholland has registered some impressive numbers.
Since he’s taken over the female thinclad program, the Lady Sharks have ruled the local roost.
The biggest question surrounding the Lady Sharks’ 12th season-opening race Saturday at Lecanto High is, can NCT sustain its current pace?
Since Milholland took over the reins of the female program, NCT has captured back-to-back Hernando County and district championships, claimed its first-ever regional title (2012) and made back-to-back trips to the state championship.
The team’s run of success, however, may have reached a climax.
From last fall’s plentiful roster, the Lady Sharks are minus eight lettermen as six graduated and two moved out of state.
Leading the list are three All-County performers – Alyssa Deligio, Alexa Lacy and Crystal Burchhardt – who finished ranked 2-3-4 in Hernando County’s final Honor Roll.
Milholland will also miss the leadership provided by veterans Briana Horn, Mary Thompson and Kaylee Arvay.
NCT will open in Citrus County with one returning letterman: junior Summer March, who finished ranked seventh in a 3.1-mile (5K) best of 21:54.00.
NCT newcomers include: seniors Brittany Perez and Tori Inzana, and juniors Amelia Schmit and Heather McCausland.
“The big thing so far was just getting a team together,” noted Milholland, the county’s defending two-time Coach of the Year. “It took a bit to put it all together and get a fifth runner.”
After looking at his current ranks, “Summer is a great kid and she’s really looking out for this team,” detailed Milholland. “She’s really good on keeping her eyes out for her teammates.
“Schmit may be the kid I’m most impressed with,” he added. “She ran track in the past and she’s the kind of kid that beats a handful of my boys during intervals.”
The team’s biggest concern, explained Milholland, especially with such a tiny roster, is avoiding injuries.
“We have to make sure and stay healthy,” insisted Milholland. “Most of these kids are newbies, so they don’t understand their (physical) limits in practice.”
On whether the Lady Sharks can collect their third straight Hernando County crown on Oct. 23 at McKethan Lake, “It’s too early to tell,” cautioned Milholland. “On paper, Springstead is the team to beat, but you never know what may happen in seven weeks.”
Milholland didn’t flinch on his assessment of the Class 2A, District 7 Meet at NCT on Oct. 30, “We’ve got 3-4 girls that have never run before,” pointed out Milholland. ‘We can’t even do a virtual meet, because the majority of our kids haven’t posted any times.
“Right now, we simply don’t know what we’re up against. We’re going to field a team and make adjustments as the season goes on.”
“Nature Coast will have a successful season,” said Milholland. “If all five girls finish the season and if we could push two (individuals) to regionals.”
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Before Milholland took over at NCT, Springstead ruled the circuit with back-to-back-to-back county crowns from 2009-11 under Joel Myers.
But since being represented at states in 2009-10, SHS hasn’t returned to the sport’s top stage.
The Mariner Boulevard thinclads, who have never captured a team district championship, will open the season at Lecanto, at least at the start, minus three lettermen – including two of the county’s top runners in 2013.
According to Coach Myers, prior to the season, three-time All-County performer and two-time Runner of the Year, senior Tiana Newton, relocated residences and no longer lives in Springstead’s zone. If that wasn’t enough, the 2013 Runner of the Year, junior Amber Philpott, “may miss the start of the season or the entire season due to medical issues.”
With Philpott, who established a Hernando County 5K record of 18:31.41, and Newton in tow, the Spring Hill runners may have challenged Land O’ Lakes for the 3A-7 title on Oct. 30.
The good news is, even without Philpott and Newton, SHS will return seven lettermen, including a 2013 All-County performer, junior Joy Jackson (21:44.01).
Interestingly, Jackson will open the campaign as the county’s fast returning runner.
The remainder of Lady Eagle returnees include: senior Amanda Santana (26:06.23), juniors Julia Diven (23:42.50), Alexandra Ede (25:11.56), Alyssa Menendez (25:08.35) and Amanda Osborn (28:08.00), and sophomore Toni Pandolfo (23:05.48).
SHS newcomers include: frosh Destiny Walker, sophomores Isabel Somavilla, Raleigh Forbell and Rachel Bedard, and junior Alexis Cubillo.
With its current cast, Myers begins his eighth season on an upbeat note.
“Sure, I would have loved to have our two studs, but we’ll see where this group of girls will take us,” he said. “Jackson is back and she ran real well for us last year. Somavilla just moved back to the area from Europe and has really looked good.
“The key, as always, is running in a pack,” he added. “We’re fortunate with our numbers that we should be real competitive at the back end. What I like most is we have a bunch of veterans. We’re not going to be great, but by late October we should round into form.”
At the county level, “I’m not sure what’s out there,” said Myers. “We all know it takes five good runners to win, but I like this team.”
On forecasting 3A-7, “Land O’ Lakes is still the team to beat,” warned Myers. “And Mitchell and Lecanto are always going to be up there. Belleview lost some great kids, but they’ll be decent, too. At this point, I think we can get out of districts.”
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Of Hernando High’s eight varsity runners last season, four are no longer with the squad. The biggest loss is with the team’s No. 3-4 runners, junior Dominque Reyes (transferred to Anclote) and senior Berkley Laporte (graduated).
Second-year skipper David Wilson returns four lettermen including: juniors Ashley Morris and Heavan Benson, and sophomores Sara King and Arianna Minnie.
Wilson is resting his hopes on the strength of his two top returning runners: Morris ((22:03.06) and Benson (24:07.50).
Lady Leopard newcomers feature: freshmen Madelynn Adams, Willow Battista, Madison Clements, Catherine Cornell and Megan McDowell, and sophomore Miranda Varner.
“At this point, I can see Miranda pushing Benson for number two,” detailed Coach Wilson, whose team finished third in the county, fourth in 2A-7 and ninth in 2A-Region II. “There’s also something about Sara. She’s a competitor. Right now our 4-5 runners are looking much better.”
Based on his current roster Coach Wilson sees additional depth, which in turn, builds even more competition.
As far as the county ranks, “We could be the sleeper team,” said Wilson. “If two of our freshmen could develop quickly, we could run six-deep. If we do that, we could make some waves.”
On the 2A-7 returning to NCT this fall, “I think we can improve on our position and advance to regionals again,” said Wilson. “We’re going to be better, especially if our No. 4-5 runners come through.”
Former prep baseball and softball mentor Kevin Fitzgerald became Central’s fifth girls cross country coach in five seasons.
The Lady Bears program that last captured back-to-back district titles in 1999-00 and served as county champs eight times (1996-08) has fallen on lean times.
Last fall, under first-year mentor Jen Merschbach, CHS didn’t produce a team score in three of its five meets and didn’t compete in the 2A-7 Meet.
At press time, Central returns three lettermen from last year including: seniors Jenna Barbee (24:59.79) and Marli Zettler (29:51.30), and junior Audrey Van Wagener (28:53.06).
Newcomers include: seniors Katherine Pham and Taylor Drake.
Coach Fitzgerald has been aided by Milholland, and former Central skipper Erin Courtney.
“I’m so grateful. Eric (Milholland) has been a big help, but Erin (Courtney) has been amazing, too,” noted Fitzgerald. “She’s really helped me with the practices. She runs every day with the girls and I’m trying to implement some of the same techniques Milholland has successfully used.”
In his second year, Weeki Wachee head coach Patrick Skipper is seeking his first team score. Last fall with only three runners, the Lady Hornets never produced a team score.
This year with only senior Monique Helm (31:24.73) back in the fold, WWHS’ efforts have been bolstered by six new faces: junior Haley Stoker, sophomore Taylor Smiley and freshmen Victoria Goldner, Caitlin Lewandowski, Aubrey Hypes and Sara “Sam” Tursi.
On the Lady Hornets’ current path, “We’re still rebuilding with the same goals as last year: we want to see five girls across the finish line at districts,” noted Skipper, a former cross country performer at Hernando. “I think with the six kids we have that’ll help us attain that goal.”