Written by Kevin Von Maxey, Red Sea Running Club

Only 13 middle school girls have EVER broken the 10:59 barrier on the challenging Holloway Park course with the top two times belonging to AAU Individual National Champions—Annabella Tomasic (10:26) and Elle Black (10:31).  The 5th fastest time ever belongs to Tavares Middle School 8th grader Cheyenne Thomas, who ran 10:39 earlier this year winning the Flrunners Invitational.  Can Thomas, a two-time defending state individual champion, make it three in a row?  How will Thomas’s Tavares Middle School team—the defending public school team XC champions—respond to being the underdog?

The Favorite:  Deerlake Middle School

On both the Flrunners virtual meet and our virtual meet, Deerlake Middle School out of Tallahassee calculated as the favorites.  And what is even scarier is that 6 of the top 7 girls will return next year!  Led by 6th grader Emma-Claire Tanenbaum, who ran 11:42 at the North Florida Fairgrounds, and Leon County Runner-Up Kaia Ables, all 5 of Deerlake’s top scorers AND their tiebreaker have run under 12:35 this season.  They placed 6 girls in the top 11 at the Leon County Championship and did not lose a race the entire season.  Can they count on their 50-second split to hold up on the hilly course and bring home their first state championship?  Deerlake and Tavares are basically tied through the top 4 runners; it’s Deerlake’s depth at #5 & #6 that puts them slightly ahead on points and at the top of our list. 

The Top Contender:  Tavares Middle School

Tavares’ top runner Cheyenne Thomas gets a lot of publicity and deservedly so, but let’s give credit to her teammates, the Noll twins—Caitlyn and Cassidy—that were not only top 20 at cross-country state last year, but along with Thomas, part of the 4x800m track state championship relay that finished 2022 as USA #1.  Tavares won last year’s public school state championship but lost 4 of the 7 runners from that squad and was not expected to compete this year but outstanding growth from Kylie Mahair and Esme Dellinger have put them back in the hunt.  The issue for the Lake County Champions is that Deerlake’s #5/#6 runners are much stronger than the Tavares #5.  Tavares will need a perfect race from all five scoring runners to pull off the upset.  But this group of girls has had an incredible run that we’ve never really seen before, winning in order, a track state championship, a cross-country state championship, another track state championship and will wrap up their middle school cross-country careers this weekend.  Don’t be surprised if they “seize the moment” one final time and pull off the upset. 

The Others:  Ruckel, Gulfview GCR, Emerald Coast, East Ridge, Indian Trails (Winter Springs)

Surprisingly, even though Ruckel’s girls qualified for state and the boys team is participating, the Ruckel girls squad is not going to make the trip to Lakeland.  With two runners expected in the top 10, this squad would have had a chance to podium.  Ruckel won the Okaloosa County Championship, 20 points clear of Destin and Liza Jackson so their decision not to run is a big surprise.

Gulfview Middle School out of Naples is a huge wild card in this race and like Deerlake, will bring their entire squad back next year.  Gulfview’s TOP SIX scoring runners are 6th and 7th graders (!) and will all return next season as co-favorites with Deerlake.  But for Gulfview, the time is NOW, and with Collier County Champion Miah Beckman leading the way with an 11:57 time and their 5th runner with a season PR of 12:42, expect Gulfview to contend for a spot on the podium. 

Emerald Coast’s Scarlett Griffin’s 10:57 at FSU Pre-State is 2nd fastest girls’ 3K time in the state this season and expect her to challenge Cheyenne Thomas for the individual crown.  The Emerald Coast girls have a solid top three runners, but would need special days from the #4 and #5 to move up in the rankings. 

East Ridge Middle School, the Lake County Runner-Up squad behind Tavares, won a tiebreaker last season with Emerald Coast to claim the 2021 state runners-up trophy.  While the team lost quite a bit of talent to high school, they return the 7th and 8th best runners from last year’s state championship in 7th graders Anieliz Galarza and Michaela Appleton.  Another squad that will return ALL 7 runners next year, East Ridge is a fringe contender this year with a much better chance next year to contend. 

Indian Trails (Winter Springs) is the true unknown in the race.  Running out of Seminole County, they don’t begin their cross-country season until the middle of October so there aren’t many results.  But Coach Riegelmeyer always brings a competitive squad to state and expect the same this year.  Indian Trails placed 4th at state last year and qualified at FLrunners this season in the final spot as the 7th team, but was impressively the 2nd school behind only Tavares. 

My personal virtual meet…

1 Deerlake 74
2 Tavares 78
3 Ruckel* 80
4 Gulfview GCR 118
5 Emerald Coast 176
6 East Ridge 191
7 Indian Trails PC 205
8 Rampello K-8 260
9 Destin 261
10 Pine Ridge PCR 263
11 North Naples 326
12 Indian Trails WC 327
13 AD Henderson 338
14 Jorge Mas Canosa 355
15 Oakleaf 362
16 Nolan 390
17 Ormond 485

*Qualified but did not register for state championship

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