Hunched over and vomiting for much of last year's Class 2A-Region 3 meet, Lake Placid's Dalton Shelton barely missed the cut to qualify for state.
He promised himself that he'd make it back this year.
And he didn't disappoint, placing fourth in the regional meet with a sizzling time of 17:12.80 to punch his ticket to the state finals in Apalachee. There, he finished 12th in 16:24.61, a personal best for the season.
"I had been sick through the end of last season," Shelton said. "It was really rough the first few minutes of the course. I wanted to bail out, but my coaches kept cheering me on.
"So when I just missed going to state, it was so disappointing. I knew I had to make it back."
Shelton was more than happy to put in the extra work. He ran close to six miles every morning. Then he added six more in the afternoon. And knowing it was his last year with the Green Dragons made getting up at dawn that much easier.
"It being my last year definitely made things different," Shelton said. "Being a senior and the only four year runner out there, I knew I had to help the team out as much as I could. But I have a bunch of good memories - it's been great. I have no complaints."
For his commitment to his craft and noteworthy achievements, Shelton has been selected as the 2013 Highlands Today All-Highlands Boy Runner of the Year.
"It's a privilege to win this award," Shelton said. "It's awesome to know that I'm going out on top. And I really want to thank God and my parents, Gary and Jodi, for all their support."
Shelton's coach, Scott Morgan, said the award couldn't have gone to a better person.
"What a great kid," he said. "Dalton was awesome to coach and gave a 100-percent effort every time. It will be a long time before I run into another runner who wants to work as hard as he does."
Shelton's feelings on his coach were reciprocal.
"He's a good guy for sure," Shelton said. "He's always there when you need something and he's out there every day. He's not just some guy telling us what to do, he's with us."
As for what the future holds, Shelton hopes it includes running. Some colleges in the South Florida area have shown interest, and Shelton intimated that he'd like to stay in-state if possible. Whatever happens, though, he's confident that the Dragons cross country program has a bright future.
"I think LP is going to be really strong," he said. "They've got a couple of great young runners. If everyone can keep their grades up, they should go far."
Eric Foster, junior, Sebring - Foster set a new personal record this year, notching a 16:22 early in the season. He's been running for the Blue Streaks for three years now, and was a major factor in helping the boys team make it to the Class 3A state finals.
"He has a true passion for running," said Sebring boys coach Jayson Bass. "I've enjoyed watching him grow this year. He was a huge part of the team."
Julian Obregon, sophomore, Lake Placid - After spending freshman year watching from the sidelines, Obregon was bitten the running bug over the summer, and despite last year being his first season on the cross country team, he continued to drop his team as the season wound down.
"He really loves running," Morgan said. "I wasn't really sure about that when he first came out, but it's clear that he's gotten addicted and he's just a great kid to coach."
Damian Foster, junior, Sebring - The twin brother of Eric, Damian also shares his sibling's love for cross country. He notched an impressive 16:52 for a new personal record this year, and was instrumental in getting the Blue Streaks to the state meet.
"He really stepped it up this year," Bass said. "He was only 30 seconds behind Eric, and Damian is learning that he can be an elite runner if he puts in the time during the offseason."
Scott Siegrist, freshman, Lake Placid - One of the many underclassmen overachievers for Lake Placid, Siegriest caught his coach's attention with his willingness to improve. Over the season, Siegrist dropped his time from the 21-23s all the way down to 19:40.
"Another one of our awesome runners, with a lot of natural ability," Morgan said. "He's always interested in listening to different insights about the sport, and he always tries to incorporate it into his running."
Malcolm Holdman, freshman, Sebring - Sebring's freshman phenom, Holdman was one of the Blue Streaks dark horses. Bass said he saw Malcolm had a ton of potential, just as long as he got his technique down. Eventually he did, as he set a season-high time of 17:17.
"Once he really figures out how to run, he could be competing with Eric and Damian," Bass said. "He's another reason we made it all the way to state. With a little natural growth, he could easily be the team's top runner in a few years."
Malik Graham, sophomore, Lake Placid - Known as one of the strongest runners on the Green Dragons' boys cross country team, Graham also supplied the team with intangibles like leadership and resolve.
"He was a workhorse for us, there's no doubt about that," Morgan said. "But what I remember most about him from this season was that he always brought the team together for a huddle and 'let's go Dragons' chant before each race."
Logan Ashley, sophomore, Avon Park - Ashley is the only Red Devil on this year's First Team. Just a sophomore, he was Avon Park's sole representative in the Class 2A-Region 3 meet, finishing in a scorching 18:10.
"He got a late start, but once he realized what he could do, he really took off," said Avon Park boys cross country coach Don Hickman. "He's getting stronger and really learning his technique. If he puts the work in this offseason, he could easily be competing with some of the best runners in the county."
Carlos Santana, freshman, Lake Placid - An all-around athlete, Santana got his time down all the way into the low 16s, despite starting out at 20:25 at the beginning of the season.
"He's just a good talent to watch," Morgan said. "He's built; a pure athlete. It's been incredible to watch him grow as a runner."
Wesley Koning, Junior, Sebring - Koning set a new personal record at the state meet, finishing the 5K in 17:39.
"He's a real handful to coach," Bass said. "But I enjoyed the challenge. He had the race of his life at state and it was awesome to see."
Dalton Hilliard, sophomore, Lake Placid - Hilliard improved his time substantially this year, moving down from the high 23s and down to the 21s as the season progressed.
"He's a good talent, but we've got some things to work on," Morgan said. "He's definitely got that running bug in him - there's no doubt he's dedicated."
Chase Langton, sophomore, Avon Park - One of the Devils most improved runners, Langton proved that runners could drop their times with dedicated training.
"He's really come on and he's just a sophomore," Hickman said. "If he keeps training, he'll go a long way."
Andrew Rivera, junior, Sebring - Injuries hampered Rivera for much of the season, but he bounced back after some strenuous training to post a PR of 17:59 in the Class 3A-Region 2 meet.
"His times were off due to injury, and we didn't always see eye-to-eye on everything," Bass said. "But we got things worked out and he had a great race at regional's. He's one of the hardest workers I've seen."
Gabriel Mercer, sophomore, Lake Placid - Known for his tenacity, Mercer took nearly four minutes off of his time this year, improving from the high 20s down to the low 21s at the end of the season.
"He's a tough kid," Morgan said. "Don't let his height fool you, he packs a punch and really pushes himself."
Juan Pitino, senior, Avon Park - Pitino had a hectic scheduled, splitting time between school and work. But even with so much of his time occupied, he found time to earn some respect from his cross country coaches.
"He's only a second-year runner," Hickman said. "He's definitely got the brain and body for it, and if he didn't have to spend so much time working, he could've really gone a lot farther."
Giovanni Hernandez, senior, Avon Park - One of the hardest working seniors the Red Devils had, Hernandez's drive was unmatched.
"He was a hardworking kid," Hickman said. "He really came on at the end of the season."
Coach of the year - For directing Sebring's boys cross country team to its first state finals meet in nearly two decades, Jasyon Bass has been selected as the Highlands Today All-Highlands Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year.