Keys prep cross country teams finally got to compete on Friday in the King of the Hill 2021 after their first scheduled event was a wash.

Ideally, it was not a race to begin the season with three very inexperienced teams from Coral Shores, Key West and Marathon running on one of the toughest courses at Tropical Park against hundreds of very seasoned teams and runners.

But, all three coaches had one goal: see what their kids could do and finish with a smile.

Longtime coach Jim Murphy, now in his 13th year, said despite only two returning girls, the team showed a lot of grit.

Out of 14 varsity girls teams, the Lady Dolphins finished 10th overall.

“The game plan going into the race was to smile, do your best. We’ll probably keep that for this race and the next one and figure out some strategies,” stated Murphy. “Until we see what they can do and can’t do and what they do wrong, I’d rather they learn themselves than me trying to teach it right away.”

Sophomores Mikkel Ross (24:42) and Rain Banks (25:30) finished one and two for the Marathon girls team.

“I was pretty happy with the girls scores. I looked back two years ago and we did a lot better than we did last time,” said Murphy. “Their scores are equivalent and a little better. They definitely went out too fast at the start, but we can easily fix and could easily drop a minute or so. It was positive on that side.”

It was no surprise that Marathon’s top boy was senior Pedro Zapata, with a personal record time on a very tough course.

“Pedro has come a long way. Two years ago, he came in and never admitted it to us, but he was hurt the whole time. Last year he really took to the (Pitchford twins Jonathan and Owen) and ran a lot with them. This summer, I knew he was running everywhere. I think his PR was an 18:12 and he ran a 17:59, so he’s already had a PR and that’s not a course to PR on. I don’t know if it’s one of the toughest ones in South Florida, but it’s always 100 degrees and no wind every time I’ve been there. It was awesome to see him break 18. I’ve a feeling he’s going to keep on dropping.”

Finishing at second for the boys was sophomore Vaclav Bursa with a 20:32; Enrique Escobar was the boys No. 3 runner at 21:06, Mason Buxton (21:34) and junior Jakub Bursa (21:49) was fifth, but fell off the pace.

“Jacob had a little stitch going on, but he fought through it. He showed his toughness. Many people would have slowed up but he still ran in the 21’s which was awesome,” explained Murphy. “It was perfect. Vaclav, we call him Vance, Enrique and Jakub passed me at the mile all three at six minutes. At about 1.8 miles in, all three were together. This next race I want Mason with them. He was only about 15 seconds off them. Hopefully our two through five can pick off runners together. That’s the game plan so far. They ran perfect until about two miles. If I can get four of them together at two miles and then take off, that would be awesome. You don’t expect them to run that smooth in their first race.”

Murphy said it was a fast start but with little experience they will mature.

“We have some other boys that ran faster and just got caught up in the moment. Whenever Belen (Jesuit) is in the race, it’s a fast start. They don’t have the experience yet to run their own race. It’ll come. You want them to have the confidence but can’t be overconfident.”

Coral Shores entered just nine runners in the varsity events. The top boys runner was junior Simon Gutierrez, just off a 19-minute pace with a 20:04 finish, much to the delight of coach Gabe Suarez, now in his seventh season with the cross-country team. Seconds behind was sophomore Robert Temkin (20:24) and sophomore Makani Burga nailed a 20:41. As a team, the ‘Canes were No. 17 out of 22 teams entered.

For the Lady Hurricanes, freshman Kai Guth finished with a 26:24 and junior Hailey Cooper clocked a 27:08.

“We had three girls and six boys run in the event. For the first race of the year, we set time goals for each runner and all of them either met their goals or came within five seconds of it,” explained Suarez. “One girl very new to the sport was just trying to make it to the two-mile mark in a certain time, and she did just that. In the end I’m very proud of the runners that competed as six out of the nine have never raced before.”

In his first year with the Conchs running program, Dave Perkins entered the boys and girls teams in the junior varsity races to avoid another rainout.

“We got up there and one of the other coaches said he was going to run his kids in the JV race because there was a 70% chance of thunderstorms at 5 p.m. Sure enough, right before the varsity race, it started looking ugly, but they still got to race,” Perkins said. “I felt good that we got to race even though I gambled and didn’t win because they ran the varsity races on time. I didn’t want to take a chance driving all the way up there and not running, again.”

Senior girls runner and team captain Catarina Dubyk-Cassidy could not make the trip, but freshman Caylaa Makimaa led the way for the Lady Conchs with a 27:34.

“Caylaa ran well for her first race. She was a little disappointed because her PR for a 5K is around 21, but I told her running a 5K on the road and running on this track is completely different,” said Perkins.

Sophomore Abigail Cowan hit a 28:17 as junior Gianna Marchant finished with a 29:01.

One the few returning boys, sophomore Colbin Hill, led the Conchs with a 20:36.

“Colbin was only 30 seconds off his PR from last year and that’s a tough course. They didn’t figure out how to run it but the veterans all dashed to one side on the grass while everyone else ran in the gravel up the middle. He ran well for his first race out. He’ll get a little race smarter in our next meet.”

Behind Hill was junior Logan Phillips (24:49), sophomore Sebastian Jaroszewicz (25:46) was third with a PR and junior Dale Bitner clocked a 26:03.

“There were 400-plus runners. When they lined up at the start line, they were 100 people to your left and your right, and they all took off like a bat out of hell to that little funnel. I’m sure it was a little unnerving for them, but it was a good learning experience for everyone,” explained Perkins. “Everyone finished. They felt good and had a smile on their face at the end of the race. Can’t get any better than that.”