By Jordan Kroeger, SunCoast Sports
NORTH PORT — Pressure can sometimes be overwhelming and North Port High School will certainly admit it.
The Bobcats boys cross country coach Phu Nguyen calls it, “the curse of the preseason rank.”
North Port was ranked second in the state in flrunners.com’s preseason poll but its results on the course haven’t exactly lived up to the hype. That was the case at last week’s District 4A-8 meet, where the Bobcats finished fourth as a team, just good enough to clinch the district’s last spot in today’s Region 4A-2 meet in Lakeland.
The Bobcats are happy to be running again at Holloway Park, but they know they need to run much better if they hope to achieve the goal they set at the beginning of the season — medaling at next week’s state meet.
“We really underperformed. We’re a much better team than we showed last Thursday,” Nguyen said. “We had three guys out with a cold or some kind of sickness this past weekend and one guy was out of town for his brother’s wedding so he barely got back in time for the race.
“I hate making excuses but that’s what it was — just an excuse after an excuse after another excuse and it showed. We can’t have any excuses this week. If we have any excuses we’re just staying home.”
One of those Bobcats battling illness was top runner Louis Dietrich, who still posted North Port’s best finish with a time of 17 minutes, 9.63 seconds for 12th place. He was just one of two Bobcats to finish in the top-15 — the meet’s individual qualifiers — along with Dillon Garrett, who was 14th in 17:19.66.
Dietrich actually led the race after the first half-mile before falling back to third after a mile. Nguyen said Dietrich looked comfortable and relaxed when he passed him on the track, and he thought the runner had a chance to pull off an upset victory.
But then Dietrich’s cold struck and he couldn’t recover.
“I didn’t get to see him again until the two-mile mark, where he dropped back to fifth place and he told me after a mile-and-half his chest starting hurting and he was having a hard time breathing, and it clearly affected him so I expect him to finish a lot better this week,” Nguyen said.
Again, call it the curse of the preseason rank.
“I think we just didn’t have the momentum going into it,” Dietrich said. “Usually, I’m the one leading the pack so I feel like if they’re going off of me and I didn’t run as well as I should have, that might’ve gotten into their heads. It just wasn’t a good race for us but everybody has a bad race.”
Dietrich and Garrett admit the team put too much pressure itself due to their preseason ranking. They said they didn’t work as hard as they should have throughout the year, and it’s put the Bobcats in a catch-up mode at the most crucial part of the season.
“I think it added way too much pressure and confidence to us,” Garrett said. “Now it’s time to catch up because we should be ahead already.”
The Bobcats say they’ve had a great week of practice. Nguyen has put an emphasis on speed work this week while cutting down mileage to keep their legs fresh.
This week also has helped rebuild North Port’s confidence, and the boys believe they’re rolling into the regional meet with a lot of momentum.
“Times and place-wise we should be better and so far, so good,” Nguyen said. “So far this week we’ve had great practices and everyone is starting to get over their sicknesses so everything is shaping up as it should be so hopefully that momentum carries over to the race.”
And hopefully into Tallahassee for next week’s state meet.
“If we run like we’re capable of running we’ll make it,” Nguyen said. “If we run like we did last week then we’re staying home.”
North Port girls, who also finished fourth in their district meet, will join the boys in Lakeland.
Both the Lemon Bay girls and boys also will be competing in the Class 2A portion of the meet at Holloway Park. Kelsi Ogilvie led the girls to a fifth straight district title by winning the individual championship in a school-record time.
Port Charlotte’s boys and Charlotte’s boys and girls will participate in the Class 3A regional at Community Park in Estero. The Pirates enter off a third-place finish, two spots ahead of the Tarpons boys.