Mater Academy cross-country standout Valerie Lastra finished second at state as a freshman but slipped to fourth as a sophomore, in part due to a stress fracture on her left foot that limited her training that fall.
Last year as a junior at the Class 3A state finals in Tallahassee, Lastra was taken off her game when the song she usually plays on her headphones as part of her pre-race preparation — Eye of the Tiger — wasn’t available because of Internet issues.
Then, during the first third of the 3.1-mile race, the laces on her right shoe came undone. One mile later, the same thing happened with her left shoe.
“I don’t think that’s happened to me ever,” said Lastra, who started running in the seventh grade. “Toward the end of the race, I had to hope my shoes didn’t come off because they have a chip in it, which is how they track your time. If my shoes came off, I’d have to go back and get them.”
Lastra, a 17-year-old Miami native who has Mexican (mom’s side) and Cuban (dad) ancestry, said she heard a rival fan yell during the race that her laces were undone.
“That made me run faster,” Lastra said of that fan’s remarks. “I was upset.”
The last 100 meters of the race are a sprint down a hill, and Lastra flew through that slope while “crunching her toes” inward to try to keep her shoes on her feet.
The plan worked.
Lastra became the first cross-country state champion in Mater Academy history, turning in a time of 17:17 that beat her nearest competitor by 29 seconds. She also beat the previous course record of 17:42.
“She didn’t just break the record, she destroyed it,” Mater coach Al Parker said. “She attacked those hills.”
Parker said Lastra should be a heavy favorite to repeat as state champ this year because some of the schools that had been the “big hitters” in 3A have moved to 4A, most notably 2018 state champ Chiles as well as Niceville and East Lake.
But Lastra isn’t the only returning Dade/Broward state champ in cross-country this year. There’s also Belen junior Javier Vento (3A boys) and Pine Crest senior Tsion Yared (2A girls).
Yared, who turned in a time of 17:26, won her third state title and was named Florida’s Gatorade Runner of the Year after finishing 22nd in the Nike Cross Nationals.
It was pure domination across the board for Yared, who set six meet records. Aside from state, she also won regional and district titles and took the gold at several meets – King of the Hill, Pine Crest, St. Thomas University and Last Chance.
Meanwhile, Vento last year became the first Belen individual to win a cross-country state title since Elliot Clemente in 2011.
Vento won state last year in a time of 15:39, sprinting down the stretch to edge teammate Adam Magoulas by just two seconds.
“That was a bit unexpected,” Belen coach Frankie Ruiz said of Vento’s state title. “But Javi had been progressing, and he was fearless that day at state.”
This is the 50th anniversary of the Belen cross-country program, and there have been just two head coaches during that span — Carlos Barquin, who won one state title, and now Ruiz, who has nine championships in 17 years.
A win this year would break the Florida cross-country record for state titles, which Belen now shares with Largo High.
Of Belen’s top seven runners last year, just three return — juniors Vento and Diego Gomez and sophomore Magoulas. Vento is not yet racing, and Magoulas is only at 80 percent — both due to foot injuries.
Gomez has been Belen’s best runner so far, but the Wolverines have astonishing depth with 52 athletes on their roster.
Ruiz is confident Vento and Magoulas will be 100 percent by the time the state finals series arrives.
“We’re going to be pretty fast up front with our top three,” Ruiz said. “And this is the deepest we’ve been since 2013. Our top six runners are separated by just 30 seconds, which is one of tightest spreads for any team in the state.”
▪ District meets: Oct. 21-26.
▪ Regional meets: Oct. 30-Nov. 2.
▪ State championship: Nov. 9 at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee.
2018 STATE CHAMPS
▪ Boys: Sarasota (4A); Belen (3A); Jacksonville Bolles (2A); Mount Dora Christian (1A)
▪ Girls: Tampa Plant (4A); Tallahassee Chiles (3A); Jacksonville Bolles (2A); Circle Christian (1A)
According to Flrunners.com, Belen is the top-ranked boys’ team in the state, regardless of class. Columbus is seventh, Braddock is 35th and Doral is 39th. Among the girls, Braddock is third, Pine Crest is 13th and Lourdes is No. 20.
Three individual state champs return for Dade/Broward cross-country season