ORANGE PARK - After the 2018 cross country season, area fans saw the emergence of a group of runners that raised the standard bar for performance to an unprecedent state meet level.
Graduates Alex Guy, Keystone Heights High; Joel Nesi, Ridgeview High; John Bear, Orange Park High; Benjamin Kailes, St. Johns Country Day School, plus returning seniors Dylan Nelson, Oakleaf High, and Will Livesay, Fleming Island High and St. Johns Country Day School sophomore Matthew Stratton took the cross country arena by storm last year with stunning performances all the way to the state championship races where Stratton emerged as a lone medalist with his eighth place in Class 1A finish in 16:19.95.
“I’m trying not to give myself a mindset of ‘I got three more years to get better’,” said Stratton, who has been training steady weeks of 60-65 miles with a few road 5Ks, including a first-time 15:59 time at the July 4 Celebration 5K in Jacksonville. “I want to go for it this year. I not working to have this be a trial year for later. I want to see what kind of damage I can do right now.”
Stratton, who plans on competing in the rugged Tour de Pain series in Jacksonville, a four mile beach, 5K road run and a mile in a 24 hour period on Aug. 2-3, has an advantage in that his coach is his dad, Greg Stratton.
“It’s tough to want to sleep in when the coach is in the same house,” said Stratton.
Behind Stratton, Kailes (12th in 1A in 16:38.69), Nesi (29th in 2A in 16:52.29), Guy (31st in 2A in 16:56.72) and Bear (26th in 3A in 16:37.72) are all gone to college.
Joining Stratton will be Jacob Kailes, a junior with a 62nd place 18:02 finish at the Class 1A championship race.
Hoping to keep the momentum going, Oakleaf’s Nelson, (20th in Class 4A in 16:33.64) and Fleming Island’s Livesay (63rd in 4A in 17:03.34) return to chase Stratton for the county’s top spot.
Nelson, with the coaching of Enoch Nadler, a Keystone Heights High standout and a qualifier to the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon race in Atlanta in February 2020, has changed his attack on the upcoming season from a summer track steeplechase national title runs to a complete focus on building his overall stamina and endurance with a three-month block of mileage weeks averaging up to 75 miles per week.
“He begged me to not do the track races that I did last year and just give me one summer to train me,” said Nelson, who won four national track titles in the steeplechase in 2018 in meets nationwide. “We are concentrating on building my endurance and stamina with solid weeks of mileage. I fully committed to him.”
Nelson and Stratton will be the two top returners in cross country for Clay County with the pair a part of the very successful group of state meet runners from last year. For 2019, Nelson and Stratton will be closely watched to retain the success of the 2018 group.
“I had a really rough region track meet last year and I felt like I let those guys down,” said Nelson. “They set the standards. I used that experience to push myself this summer to live up to that bar.”
According to Nelson, who finished second in the district 1-4A race in 16:09, ninth in the region 1-4A race in 16:28 and 20th in the Class 4A race in 16:33.64, the Oakleaf High program has added some names to the roster with a senior returner, A’Jani Stokes, who returns from Cypress Bay High after leaving Oakleaf after his freshman year due to his parents’ military commitments and one a standout from south Florida, Leesburg High’s Tylon Christopher, a track standout (1:56 800, 4:35 1600) with a 78th place finisher in region 2-3A cross country with a 17:40 at districts and an 18:29 at regions. Stokes, in 2018, finished 16th in region 4-4A with a 17:18.14 split.
“We had about 35 runners come out for the first team practice last week,” said Nelson. “The two new guys will add to our roster.”
As August approaches with August 23 a first preseason meet at Cecil Field hosted by Bishop Snyder and the annual Bob Hans Invitational at Ridgeview High, Nelson put together a quick 15:50 5K time trial just a week ago with the intention of being fast at the season start.
“I’d like to get in the low 15 minute range in the first one just to set a tone,” said Nelson, who traveled throughout the southeast to check out college programs interested in him. “I’m feeling like a few days off to taper and recover will make that happen.”
For Stratton, with Ben Kailes graduating, the path will be a bit solo with Kailes’ younger brother, Jacob, one of a handful of returners for the Spartans.
“I have been running with the guys, but a lot of it is by myself,” said Stratton. “I’ve been doing some local road races to stay sharp. The Tour de Pain and the Winter Beaches Run will be my last two races before the season starts.”
For Fleming Island, who sent a boys and girls team to the Class 4A championship race, coach Chris Otero noted Livesay has been productive with Landon Opp running strong for the summer. One question mark for Otero is Kameron Wallizada who finished last year’s track season with a series of minor injuries.
For Middleburg, coach Paul Grybb likes John Scholz improvement for the summer and sees him as the main cog for the Broncos. Scholz ran 17:35 at the district 4-3A race last year.
Orange Park coach Bernie Bernara likes returning senior Shyonnewany Dumas as his main weapon with Bear and the Aris twins; Steven and Stevenson, both graduating. Dumas ran 17:44.60 at the district 4-3A race last year.