“Last year wasn’t…that good. I didn’t run a very good race at Regionals. But it definitely motivated me on a new level . Not making it to State probably helped me. It got me more fired up for track.”

— Cypress Creek High junior Zack Poekert

For most cross country runners, the offseason is all about putting in the miles. However, after putting in the miles before his sophomore season, Cypress Creek’s Zack Poekert switched things up a bit for 2021.

Instead, the Coyotes junior built more “tempo” runs —  longer distances at a slower pace, shorter distances at a faster pace — into his training regimen and the results are paying off this season.

After winning a preseason jamboree in Palmetto — his first-ever first-place finish in high school — Zack reeled off four straight top-5 finishes against stiff competition, including a first-place finish at the River Ridge Invitational, and has emerged as a State contender in Class 3A.

Getting in the tempo work this summer, he says, has made him stronger and more confident.

“I notice the difference,” he says. “It made me a lot more confident going into these meets knowing that my training was there, and that I could compete with these (other runners) now.”

Zack Poekert (left), with coach John Hoffman, after his fifth-place finish at the Florida Horse Park Invitational in Ocala on Sept. 3 (Photos courtesy of the Poekerts)

Zack, who broke 17 minutes for the first time at the jamboree, broke 16 minutes for the first time when he ran a 15:58 to finish fifth at the Florida Horse Park Invitational in Ocala on Sept. 3.

Zack has been ranked as high as No. 18 in the state according to flrunners.com, and earlier this season had the third-best time in Class 3A.

Zack says his goal this year is to run a 15:30, a steep drop from the 16:30 or so he has been averaging. But, he is motivated and ran a 15:43 in his River Ridge win.

He was a freshman on the Coyotes team that made it to the State meet in 2019, and as a sophomore in 2020 helped the team win its first-ever district championship. However, the Coyotes did not qualify for a return trip to States, and Zack just missed going as an individual.

A strong track season (4:28 in the mile, 9:48 in the two-mile) has him ready for a bounce back.

Zack’s passion for running started when he was younger, running with his mother Ronda, a former track and cross country standout for Plant, who helped the Panthers to the 1991 and ‘92 State cross country championships. 

When Ronda got back into running after years away from the sport, Zack asked if he could join her. Together, they trained and eventually ran in a handful of 5K races, like Miles for Moffitt and Gasparilla. Eventually, Zack got to the point where he was leaving Ronda in the dust.

“I would see him at the beginning of the race, and at the end of the race,” says Ronda, laughing. 

His passion for the sport, however, grew quickly during his freshman year at Cypress Creek, buoyed by his trip to the State meet.

Ronda gives credit for Zack’s success to his coaches, John Hoffman and Elsa Rehberg, and dad Bryan will occasionally go over the course with his son.

When Ronda does have a tip to lend, it’s usually about the mental aspect of racing, and strategy. Primarily, running your own race even if the rest of the field decides to go out either too fast or too slow, and then maintaining where your tempo needs to be during the race, is paramount to success, she says.

“It’s 100 percent,” Ronda says. “If you let that slip throughout the race, it can throw off everything.”

That’s good advice in a tough District 3A-2, which features last year’s State runner-up Sunlake High and standouts like Colby Robbins and Alex Pena. Poekert already has run against both at multiple meets this season, finishing behind them by roughly 10 seconds in a few races, with more head-to-head opportunities to come. That competition will make Poekert, and the rest of the Coyotes, better by season’s end.

Poekert says he is looking forward to the challenge.

“Our team is really young but you can see that they are starting to get really good,” Poekert says. “But if we don’t go as a team, I plan on getting back to States as an individual. My goal is to run that 15:30, and be All-State at the State meet.”

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