Cross country sets eyes on state after offseason

Dain Braun, of The Villages High School cross country team, competes last season at The Villages Polo Club. The Buffalo open their seasons today after having a short offseason due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Less than two weeks from the date of their first team practice, The Villages High School cross country teams will line up for their first meet of 2020 today.

“We’re all very excited but also very nervous with the lack of conditioning,” senior Mitchell Bell said. “Obviously, we still have some, but we haven’t gotten as top-notch as we did last year.”

This year’s brief offseason was a stark change from 2019 when the Buffalo underwent a rigorous summer-long conditioning program. Due to COVID-19 concerns and late decisions from the FHSAA on when the fall sports season would begin, the runners had to run on their own in the spring and summer with just days of coaching before competing for the first time.

“It’s tough because we have this late start this year,” first-year head coach J.P. Probola said, “but we’ve got a lot of kids that did a lot of summer conditioning.”

The two squads look very different from each other this year. The boys feature several upperclassmen, but all three of their top runners from last season — Austin Wyatt, Conrad Prisby and Nick Rivera — graduated in the spring. Still, they intend to compete every weekend.

“Even without those big runners, we have to hold up our own and hopefully we do just as well,” junior Dain Braun said.

The girls, meanwhile, are a young team but one with lots of miles under their belts, returning all five runners who competed at the state meet last season.

“We know each other now because we’ve been running for a couple years, so we know how to pace each other and it just really helps,” said freshman Katherine Probola.

J.P Probola, Katherine’s father, said he likes the mix of young runners with race experience on the girls squad.

“It’s another young group but with a lot of experience so I’m hoping to win a lot of races with the girls this year,” J.P. Probola said.

Both teams will also feature some new runners, including several middle school athletes. Without a lot of time to work with them individually before the season, J.P. Probola, who had been an assistant coach with the Buffalo the previous two seasons, is counting on the more senior members of the squad to help bring the young runners along.

“I’m relying on them a lot,” he said. “This is my third year being involved with this group and every year it seems like the older kids really are a good example to the younger kids. They definitely help bring them along, and it’s a really encouraging environment.”

And, while the focus right now is getting up to speed, down the line, the Buffalo are eyeing a repeat of last year when they took both teams to the state meet.

“We’ve all kind of talked about our goals, and it’s pretty much just state, state, state,” senior Ella Kate Daley said.

“It’s always states — always,” said senior Esteban Suarez. “Always as far as we can get.”

While states will have to wait until November, today will be the first test for the Buffalo, old and new, as they line up at the Florida Horse Park Invitational in Ocala, hosted by Vanguard High School. VHS will host the annual Buffalo Invitational on Sept. 19 at The Villages Polo Club.

Staff writer Drew Chaltry can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5233, or drew.chaltry@thevillagesmedia.com.