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The Marco Island Academy cross country program has come a long way since Bruce Kretchmer took over as coach five years ago.

“We had four students total back then,” Kretchmer recalled. “We’ve got 18 now, which is a pretty big number for a small school.”

Not only has the roster improved in quantity, the Manta Rays now boast plenty of quality.

Senior Olivia Watt became the first Manta Ray runner to qualify for the state meet last year, finishing 20th.

“Individually, I really enjoyed making it to states last year,” Watt said. “This year, I want to make it back and hopefully medal this time around. We’re also hoping to go as a team. Everyone is putting in the work to make that happen.”

The Manta Rays boys squad may have an even better shot at making the state meet as a team, because they’ve got a bit more depth. Marco Island has 11 boys, as opposed to seven on the girls squad.

Marco’s boys also are extremely young, with just one junior and the rest freshmen and sophomores. The Manta Rays’ top two runners are freshmen Johnny Watt – Olivia’s younger brother – and Kevin Berry. Sophomore Camden Jones and junior Garrett Chamberlain are other runners to watch this postseason for the Manta Rays.

Other girls to watch for Marco Island are Morgan Jones and Anna Chamberlain.

Like most other Southwest Florida teams, Marco Island’s season was interrupted by Hurricane Irma. The Manta Rays were off for 2½ weeks, leading to several missed practices and meets.

The Watt family evacuated to Ohio for two weeks to be with family, so Olivia and Johnny trained there.

“Coach gave us a workout schedule and we tried to follow it as much as we could (in Ohio),” Watt said. “Johnny and I ran together, so we didn’t really lose a lot of training time.”

Marco Island Academy will know a little more where it stands before the preseason meets start, as the Manta Rays host the Marco Island Academy Rays Invitational on Saturday at Mackle Park. The Manta Rays spent this week getting the course ready after damage sustained during Hurricane Irma.

“A lot of roof shingles, tree branches, parts of tree stumps, we had to clear out all that stuff to make an easier path to run,” Watt said. “We’re all pretty excited about this meet. A lot of schools, should be a good test for us.”

Kretchmer says he expects ‘around 700 runners total’ for Saturday’s race, which will include at least 18 high schools and 16 middle schools. The first race – the girls’ varsity run – begins at 8 a.m.

“A lot of our success in the postseason will depend on how well we made up the lost time (due to Irma),” Kretchmer said. “We had a great preseason, logged a lot of miles over the summer. But when you miss 2½ weeks of practice right in the middle of the season, it’s tough to predict what we’re going to do. We kind of went from early season right into the end of the season, so we’re doing more speed work, more intense stuff with less mileage. We’ll see how it all works out, and we know a lot of other teams will be in the same boat as us.”

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