Until this season, Joe Hazera was the perennial chaser in the state title hunt. Year in and year out, Hazera won plaudits for producing all-state runners at Pines Charter but ultimately didn’t have enough firepower to challenge the Miami Belen Jesuit dynasty in Class 3A.
Hazera’s role, however, took a quantum leap over the summer when he was named to replace Trish Butler, the only female to win boys’ and girls’ team state titles in the same season, at cross-country power Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas.
For the first time in his career, Hazera gets a view from the catbird seat, where the Raiders boys’ team is a preseason No. 1 (in 4A) with a clear bulls-eye on its back.
“This is extremely exciting,” Hazera said. “It’s a little nervous because you are handed the keys to a nice car and you have to drive it fast. This is new for me having so much talent and depth. Having come in after coach Butler, who I have great respect for. A noble goal would be to continue what she was doing.”
Hazera has inherited a core led by Sean Breslin, Darian Adriano, Pierce Statham, Ian McCullough and Nicholas Rischar, which, based on returning times, flrunners.com has anointed the 4A front-runner.
The hope for the Raiders is that the tight running pack this group showed last year will ultimately be the deciding factor in eclipsing fellow state contenders Winter Park, Lynam and Dr. Phillips.
“They were all within 15 seconds of each other last year,” Hazera said. “ From first to fifth. It is fun to work with five guys running that close. In practice, I expect it to change daily who the number one runner will be.”
As if the top five wasn’t formidable enough, Hazera claims his two wild cards — cross-country newcomer Ivan Donaher and Johan Haynes — have the potential to supplant some of their more celebrated teammates in the pecking order.
Not to be overlooked is the Raiders girls’ team, which should find motivation in being pegged an un-Aquinas-like No. 10 in the preseason rankings.
A rejuvenated Alexa Cruz (17:56), who is looking to reclaim the individual state title she won two years ago, Lily Kloepfer, Nicole Debrigard, Veronica Slubowski and Anne Schloss will lead the charge.
Hazera credits Butler with easing the coaching transition. Through regular phone calls, Butler has offered Hazer individual insight into each of her former runners.
Adriano, a senior captain, said the Raiders have thrown their full support behind Hazera and used the coaching change as a rallying point. As for the lofty expectations Aquinas will face, Adriano said the Raiders will know how to handle the pressure.
“We have had a target on our backs before.” Adriano said. “It makes us feel like this is what others want us to be. That is what we are going to do. Last year we had new group of guys. We had to get them ready and show them how to race. Some teams might have wanted to quit after losing a great coach. Not us. We are racing for our family, for our brothers.”
Sep. 17: Pine Crest Invitational.
Sep. 19: Spanish River Invitational; University of Florida Mount Dew Invitational.
Sep. 25-26: flrunners.com Invitational (Titusville).
Oct. 3: Fleet Feet Invitational (Stuart); FSU Invitational (Pre-State).
Oct. 8: Junior Orange Bowl.
Oct. 9: Disney Classic (Kissimmee).
Oct. 10: Westminster Academy Invitational.
Oct. 15: BCAA Championships (Markham Park).
Oct. 19-24: District meets.
Oct. 29-31: Regional meets.
Nov. 7: FHSAA state finals (Apalachee Regional Park).
Nov. 28: Foot Locker South Regional (Charlotte, N.C.).
DEFENDING STATE CHAMPIONS
Boys — Class 4A: Lyman ; 3A: Lawton Chiles; 2A: Trinity Prep; 1A: Holy Trinity.
Girls — Class 4A: Winter Park; 3A: Creekside; 2A: Bolles; 1A: Holy Trinity.
TOP RETURNING BOYS
Archbishop McCarthy: Will Shine, Jim Hunter.
Calvary Christian: Joel Lacy, Danny Ferro, Geoffrey Still, David Hernandez, Brett Herbert.
Cardinal Gibbons: McKenna Lasher, Bryan Baldwin, Chris Castaneda, Tevone Hall.
Cooper City: Jose Penalver, Holden Miles, Garrett Yu, Frank Baquedano.
Coral Springs Christian: Jamie Wellin, Nic Mena, Jacob Kuyper, Matteus Matloff.
North Broward: Hunter Tushman, Alec Gordon, Alex Carroll; Pine Crest: Michael Kennedy, Ryan Welch, Jake Gilbert, Alec Gugel; South Plantation: Evan Chaupis, Samuel Munroe, Matt Stokes,
St. Thomas Aquinas: Sean Breslin, Darian Adriano, Pierce Statham, Ian McCulloch, Ivan Donaher.
TOP RETURNING GIRLS
Archbishop McCarthy: Yanisel Stuart, Saavannah Bergeron, Victoria Carvajal.
Calvary Christian: Nicole Taggart, Cadeebra Calcote, Joanna Lacy, Cryst Cassinelli.
Cardinal Gibbons: Anna Opalinski, Gillian Gulley, Melissa Stewart, Andreina Martinez.
Cooper City: Bailey Lazo, Aimee Becker, Heather Carpenter, Shelby Levine.
Coral Springs Christian: Anna Tauzer, Julia Martin, Rayn Ramclam, Tara Vander Laan.
North Broward: Katien Pinnell, Katie Bishop, Gianna Milan, Dana Hernandez.
Pine Crest: Tsion Yared, Julia Montgomery, Mahdere Yared, Simone Vreeland, Jamie Zipper.
St. Thomas Aquinas: Alexa Cruz, Lily Kloepfer, Nicole Debrigard, Veronica Slubowski, Anne Schloss.
South Plantation: Elise Andreson, Samantha Forsberg, Holly Renick, Toijun Wiggan.
PRESEASON TOP TEAMS
Boys: St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvary Christian, Pine Crest, Coral Glades, Archbishop McCarthy, Cardinal Gibbons, Boyd Anderson, Westminster Academy, Douglas, Coral Springs.
Girls: Pine Crest, St. Thomas Aquinas, Calvary Christian, Westminster Academy, Boyd Anderson, Cardinal Gibbons, Douglas, North Broward, Archbishop McCarthy, Cypress Bay.