By Roy Fuoco
Alicia Ruiz nearly didn’t run cross country this season before changing her mind as the season was about to begin. It’s an understatement to say she made the right decision.
The George Jenkins sophomore capped a spectacular season by running a Polk County-record time of 18:07 to finish second on Saturday in the 2018 FHSAA Class 4A State Cross Country Finals at Alachua State Park.
Ruiz broke the county mark set by Lake Region’s Sydney Devore at the 2008 state meet. Ruiz is the first Polk runner to finish second since Lakeland Christian’s Rebecca “Spookie” Eaves ran 18:52 to finish second in the 1A girls race in 2007.
“I wanted to get a big P.R., and when I was coming
down the stretch, I was just giving it my all,” said Ruiz, who was seeded 12th heading into the race. “This feels really good. I’m just so happy.”
George Jenkins finished seventh in the team competition, just nine points ahead of Fleming Island. Junior Anna Sentner ran a season-best 18:51.4 to finish 13th. It was the fifth race in a row that she lowered her time. The other five Jenkins runners, Isabell Miller Kaliegh Malick, Viktorya Manno, Caroline Mason and Lauren Musselman, all ran personal-records.
“Seventh place, I’m estatic,” George Jenkins coach Dale Meskimen said. “When you see all the P.R.s, obviously, we couldn’t done any better. The girls were just amazing today. I can’t say enough about the girls. If you look at the last two weeks, last week at region, had they not run like they did — we had five P.R.s — Alicia wouldn’t have had the chance to run today.”
Ruiz did not finish the race at the region meet last week when she collapsed 300 meters from the finish because of dehydration. She made sure she ate right and stayed hydrated all week then ran a smart race on Saturday.
“I made sure I didn’t go out too fast because at regions, I went out to fast and didn’t get the chance to finish,” she said. “So I said I’m just going to be smart about this race. At each mile mark I hit, I started picking it up even more, and I eventually passed the second girl.”
Ruiz was thankful that her team ran as strong as it did last week so she was able to run at the state meet.
“I didn’t want to let my team down like I did at regionals, so I wanted to run for them” she said.
Meskimen said Ruiz ran just like he wanted her to run.
“She ran smart,” he said. “We talked about how to pace herself. She ran very, very well. She looked strong.”
Riverview’s Alyssa Hendrix won the 4A girls race in 17:40.
Lakeland’s Sophie Valenti capped her high school cross country career by running 19:46.5 to finish 37th.
It was good day for many Polk County runners, starting with the Lake Wales boys. Junior Andy Denton ran a personal-best 15:56.3 to finish seventh and lead Lake Wales to a sixth-place finish.
Denton’s time lowered his personal-record time by more than 19 seconds and is the best time in
the county this year, breaking the mark of 16:05.88 set by George Jenkins Brady Zimmerman last week. It’s also the eighth-fastest time overall since 2000 by a Polk County runner.
Lake Wales’ Mac Updike slip into the top 25 by running 16:49.3 The Highlanders finished with 258 points to end up in the middle between fifth-place Key West (227) and seventh-place Fernandina Beach (284).
In the 2A girls race, Frostproof’s Cristal Gomez was top Polk finisher. She ran 19:29.9 to finish 29th, and teammate Gabriella Rybinski was 48th in 20:02.3. Both runners set personal records on Saturday.
The Bulldogs finished 16th to finish ahead of rival McKeel. The Wildcats were 22nd. Emma Nales-Torchia was McKeel’s top runner. She ran a personalbest 20:57.5 to finish 84th.
Zimmerman ran his second-best time of his career by finishing eighth in 16:12.2 as the only Polk runner in the boys 4A race.
Lakeland Christian’s Bryson Yamnitz and Seth Martinex each ran personal-best times in the 1A boys race. Yamnitz ran 16:39.1 to finish 13th with Martinez right behind him in 14th place, running 16:44.
In the 1A girls race, district champion Gretchen Caswell ran a personal-best 20:09.9 to finish 21st. Teammate Sarah Bayes was just outside the top 25. She finished 26th in 20:12.9.
Lake Region’s Ladarius Tellis ran 17:09.3 to finish 69th in the 3A boys race.