Veteran seniors Rain Banks, left, and Mikkel Ross make their way through the regional course in Boca Raton.

It has been a few years since all three Keys high schools were represented in a cross country regional event. On Nov. 8, the Florida High School Athletic Association held the state qualifying race for 1A and 2A classifications at South County Regional Park in Boca Raton. 

A wave of royal blue will again make its way to Tallahassee to close the 2023 season. Marathon’s girls team qualified to participate at states for the fifth consecutive year as the Lady Fins’ eighth-place finish earned them an automatic bid to the finals. Junior Ella Dunn led the charge, finishing in 22nd place overall in a time of 22:12. Seniors Mikkel Ross and Rain Banks will make their fifth trip to Tally after crossing the finish line in 22:47 and 24:09, respectively. 

Maeve Merryman (23:22), Madelyn Thornton (24:00) and Sara Robinson (24:11) are all freshmen but are veterans of the state course, having made the trip last season. In fact, only one Lady Fin is new to states, and she is also the youngest Keys qualifier this season. Seventh grader Rebecca Merryman (24:11) will be the Dolphins’ number seven runner, giving Marathon a legacy of depth and experience for the coming five seasons.

Marathon’s boys did not disappoint at regionals and will make a ninth consecutive state appearance. The Dolphins were led by junior Vance Bursa, who was third overall in the region, finishing in 16:20. Proving that Bursas and speed go hand-in-hand was eighth grader Antonin Bursa, who was 19th overall in 17:21. Senior Jakub Bursa was third for Marathon in 18:04. Seniors Dillon Shelar (18:21) and Mason Buxton (18:42), eighth grader Allan Taylor (19:39), and junior first-year runner Adrien Holdinga (20:14) will all be competing for state hardware on Nov. 17. Taylor and Holdinga are making their state course debuts; the rest of the Dolphins have raced at the hilly, treed course over the past few seasons. 

The Dolphins will make the long but now familiar drive to Tallahassee with head coaches Darby Sheehan and Jim Murphy. Murphy was very satisfied with both teams’ performances at regionals. The girls squad, considered a “bubble” team, collectively dropped enough time to qualify. The boys squad was all but a shoo-in, but had been projected as the seventh- or eighth-place team, making their fourth-place performance a nice surprise. The Dolphins have enjoyed nearly a decade of state success, making team records difficult to beat. This year’s crew is just 11 seconds from the team average low time and is clearly peaking at the right moment. 

Conchs junior Jerven Louis and senior Colbin Hill made the roster for regionals with standout individual times at districts. Louis finished in 19:13, laying the groundwork for a solid season next year. Hill’s improvements this season have been constant, culminating with his 18th-place overall finish at regionals in 17:25, a personal record by nearly 30 seconds. Despite his blazing finish time, Hill did not make the cutoff for states, missing the mark by just three seconds. The speedy senior is considering a collegiate campaign and with his unwavering work ethic and talent will no doubt be an asset to any school he chooses.

Joining Louis and Hill at regionals was the entire Key West girls team, which qualified by placing fourth at districts. The Lady Conchs finished 11th overall, three teams out of an automatic bid to the state meet. The young team’s rise to success is nothing short of remarkable, and the Conchs will return all but one athlete in 2024. Briana Nodal is the team’s lone senior. Nodal finished in 25:31 and in her final season with the team helped them achieve their goal of a regional appearance. Juniors Laira Anaya (22:26), Naima Thomas (22:39), Mia Steer (25:34) and Ava Gonzalez (25:41), along with freshman Violet Jangraw (23:49), will create a strong core next season. Their postseason experiences will serve them well.

There will be a touch of crimson at the state meet this season, though. Junior Caylaa Makimaa finally did what her coach knew was coming this season, cracking the 20-minute barrier in her biggest race of the year. Makimaa was within seconds of a feat very few female high school runners achieve, and at regionals ran a 19:53. Her seven-second improvement “crushed it,” according to coach Keara McGraw, who will join Makimaa at the state meet in Tallahassee. 

Coral Shores had one runner make the cut for the exclusive regional race as junior Kai Guth represented the Upper Keys after a great run at districts. Guth finished the race in 24:17, giving the young Hurricane team a lot to look forward to with their top runner returning for another season and a roster full of young, improving athletes. Guth did not qualify for states, but the experience of two postseason races will benefit her and the rest of the Lady ‘Canes next year. 

Makimaa and the double dose of Dolphins will toe the line for the FHSAA State Championships on Friday, Nov. 17 at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee. The Lady Fins will start at 7:45 a.m. followed by Marathon’s boys at 8:35. Makimaa’s race begins at 9 a.m.

Photos by RICK MACKENZIE/Contributed

Tracy McDonald fled to the Keys from the frozen mountains of Pennsylvania hours after graduating from college and never looked back. She is a second generation coach and educator, and has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She and her husband met at a beginning teacher meeting in 1997 and have three children born and raised in Monroe County. In her free time, McDonald loves flea markets, historical fiction and long runs in the heat.