LAND O'LAKES — Sarge, the German shepherd rescue dog and de facto mascot of the Land O'Lakes High cross country team, veered a lit bit off course as the Gators were practicing Monday. There was little doubt who would chase him down.
"Natalie's obsessed," said coach Meredith Keppel, referring to Natalie Abernathy's affinity for the dog.
It's also a pretty good description of Abernathy's feelings about running. The junior distance dynamo is gearing up for the cross country postseason, which gets going Saturday with the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet in Dade City.
Districts, won by the Gator girls each of the past three seasons, are next. After that it's regionals and the ultimate race of the high school season, the Class 3A state meet in Tallahassee. Abernathy's focus toward that Nov. 11 race mirrors that of her entire outlook.
"From now on I'm trying to put my all into all my workouts, trying to get stronger and faster just to prepare myself for regionals and states," she said. "Just trying to come in, I hope, top three at states. That's a big goal of mine. And then, maybe by senior year, win states. That'd be great."
It all sounds so possible when Abernathy says it, matter-of-factly but pleasantly, before taking off for a practice run — with the boys.
"She's pretty great," top Land O'Lakes boys runner Alex Normandia said. "She can hang with us. She's very focused."
Keppel, whose father Kris coached the Gators for 21 years before passing from cancer in early 2015, knew what she was getting when Abernathy hit campus two years ago.
"The 5K my dad would put on, I would see her there," Keppel said. "When I was running in high school, she was the girl there watching time trials. When I knew she was going to Pine View (Middle, near Keppel's house and where the Gators practice), I was pretty happy because I knew she'd be going to Land O'Lakes."
Clearly Abernathy didn't have to be nudged into the sport. Older brother Nathan, who ran for the Gators, was and still is an inspiration. Nathan's now at Wake Forest University, not on the varsity team but part of the running club there.
"Every time he comes home, I always run with him. He's in North Carolina but every time I have a race he'll call down, ask how I did, say good luck before. He's really positive, and influencing my motivation as well," Abernathy said.
Along with the constant, long, training runs, Abernathy spends loads of time working on her core in efforts to improve her form. No fitness class, no instructor, just workout plans she gathers up and completes herself.
And her mom, Dana, is a pretty awesome pasta cook, with chicken parm seeming to find its way on most pre-race menus.
"Consistency. She's out there running six days a week, 45 weeks a year," observed boys coach Mike Zwijacz. "It's just a gradual continuation, building up. And all these other meets are nice, but it's all building up to 11-11 for her."
As in the date of the state meet, where Abernathy calculates she'll have to have her 5K time down to 18 minutes. That's a little less than a six-minute mile, and it's also 25 seconds faster than what she's running at her top speed now.
There wasn't much in the way of challenging Abernathy at last week's Gator Keppel Invitational at Crews Lake Park. She ran an 18:46, more than a minute faster than the runnerup. Teammate Nia Acosta, rounding into shape after a stress fracture injury, was third (20:08) and Gators senior Emma Skantze 19th.
Skantze is also part of the Gators' outstanding soccer team, but Abernathy might not be joining her this season.
"I might not do soccer this year, because it's my junior year I think I'm going to start focusing on running. I love playing soccer and I'm for sure gonna miss playing on the team," she said.
Saturday's SAC meet at Withlacoochee River Park promises to be an exciting race. Based on each runners' top times, Keppel ran the numbers and it suggests that Wiregrass Ranch, Sunlake and Land O'Lakes are essentially even.
"Sunlake's got an amazing group of girls, so this will be a really good test for us," she said.
After that, Abernathy's focus shifts fully to that top-three state finish. She was 14th as a sophomore running 18:50; as a freshman she came in 21st with a 19:26. To boot, Abernathy has posted top-10 finishes in the 2-mile run at the last two track and field state meets.
But making up 25 seconds, across 3 miles, in about a month's time should prove to be the ultimate test of her focus.
"Obviously it's both, mentally and physically," she said. "You just have to stay motivated, and really put a lot of efforts into practices, and stay positive. And just keep thinking the best."