By:  J. Daniel Pearson

If Tohopekaliga (boys) and Celebration (girls) want to repeat as Orange Belt Conference cross country champions this year, they are going to have to rely on a relatively new cast of characters to do so.  

That’s because after several years of the county cross country scene being dominated by a handful of outstanding athletes like Celebration’s Catalina Edwards and Tohopekaliga’s Johan Comacho, graduation has finally taken its toll – leaving a crop of relatively young athletes to fill the void.

On the girls’ side, Celebration ended Harmony’s four-year hold on the team championship but graduated most of its top talent, including Edwards.  If Storm wish to repeat they will rely on new leaders, including freshmen Claire Reburn and Serena Santiago.  Reburn was Celebration’s top finisher at the prestigious Kowboys Invitational with a seventh place showing and helped the Storm to the highest team finish among Osceola County schools.   Junior Carly Robbins and Marissa McNeill will provide leadership to the Storm.

St. Cloud, which won seven consecutive girls OBC titles from 2010-17, expects to challenge for the title this year. Jada Shoyer is coming off a solid track season where she placed fourth in 3200 meter run at OBCs.  Seniors Hannah Kline and Izabell Reichard provide leadership and sophomore Kyla Perez and Jalissa Yarborough could be primed for break out seasons.  “We have some experience and some depth and we believe we are ready to make a run at the OBC championship,” Harkema said.

Harmony, who won four consecutive titles from 2018-21, cannot be counted out.  The Lady Longhorns return defending OBC champion Lailana Decker, who blew away the field last year by almost a minute. The junior is coming off an outstanding track season in the distance events.

Decker placed seventeenth at the Kowboy Invitational and will lead a team that includes Kate Ussery, Maria Torres, Alissa Santacruz and freshmen Cadence Edwards, Miranda Diaz, Lily Ashley and Hailey De Meglio. “Our younger runners are fiercely competing for top spots on our roster and that will certainly make us more competitive as a team,” Longhorns coach Shasta Edwards said. 

Although most other schools will not have the depth to compete for the girls OBC team title, several outstanding individuals will have a shot at all-conference honors – including Tohopekaliga’s Naomi Polete-Ortiz and Marley Minier; and Osceola’s Kayara Rodriguez and Mia Gonzalez-Nunez, who earned All-OBC last year.  

On the boys’ side, look for Tohopekaliga to make a strong run at fourth consecutive title.  The Tigers return Marc Rodriguez, the top finisher at the Kowboy Invitational (39th – 17:43.05).   Seniors Nikolas Boone, Jared Lopez and Anthony Allen and sophomore Cameron Ford form the nucleus of Tohopekaliga’s 2023 team.   

Celebration was denied a boys’ team title in each of the last two year in dramatic fashion.  When the final top five scores were counted, Celebration had tied Tohopekaliga for the team title both years – only to see the Storm denied when the sixth runner became the tie breaker.  Brothers Jakobe (senior) and Malachi Vongphrachanh and senior Sebastian Valez will lead the Storm in 2023.

St. Cloud will be seeking its first boys title since 2019, but may be a year away from becoming a serious contender.  The Bulldogs top runners are Brody Ansbaugh and Edwin Echeverry, a pair of freshman that placed in the top three at last year’s OBC Middle School Championships.  Returning standouts Silas Corchado and Isaiah Casiano will add experience to the Bulldogs runners.

Harmony will be anchored by returning veterans Anakin Barbour and Zach Smith.  The Longhorns finished third at last year’s OBC championships and will rely on newcomers Jonathan Cosmo and Bryon Burson to boost its roster.  “As with the girls’ team, we have a nice mixture of upper classmen and talented newcomers,” Coach Debra Richardson said.  “We have so many talented newcomers it may take the better part of a season to see how our lineup shakes out.”

Other individuals to keep an eye on this year include, Osceola’s Ethan Ortiz and Matt Bicovny; Gateway’s  Sawyer Sullivan and Einar Iglesias; and  Poinciana’s Levi Lee and Felipe Torres.

The boys and girls Orange Belt Conference Cross Country Championships will be contested on Wednesday, Oct. 18 at 4 p.m. at St. Cloud High School.