CREWS LAKE — The star of Saturday’s 17th annual Land O’ Lakes Gator Cross Country Invitational didn’t run a yard.
Land O’ Lakes High boys cross country coach Kris Keppel watched as his runners took three of the top spots and finished third as a team. Senior Travis Nichols won with a time of 16:05, Tyler Stahl was third at 16:19 and Jake Poore was fourth in 16:30.
These young men were running for their coach.
Keppel, 52, is running the race of his life, and a lot of people are cheering him on. Now coaching his 20th year at Land O’ Lakes High, Keppel was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He will start a chemotherapy regiment, then have radiation treatment, and if his abdomen is strong enough, he will have surgery on a tumor.
“I’m ready for the fight,’’ Keppel said. “(The cancer is) just another challenge. We have great doctors. You don’t think about dying. You think you are a survivor. You have to go in with that attitude.”
“The coaches in Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties have been so supportive. We have the best group of parents I have had in 20 years. We truly are blessed.”
Gators girls cross country coach Karen DeHaas has been filing in for Keppel when needed, and they have one of the program’s best boys teams to date.
“It’s the first time we have had three guys in the top five,” he said. “The whole team has been awesome. They do whatever I ask them to do. Travis, Tyler, Jake and Stephen (Barnabei) can basically coach themselves.”
Keppel was at the meet with wife Darlene, and he helped as much as he could. His daughters, Meredith and Morgan, also came home. Morgan is a student at the University of Florida and is preparing to run the Boston Marathon.
“I think cross country has been his savior,’’ said Darlene, his wife of 28 years. “It keeps his mind occupied. One day at a time.”
Keppel, a media specialist and history teacher at Land O’ Lakes, has touched the lives of many students. He has the support from fellow parishioners at Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church in Land O’ Lakes.
But the support of DeHaas, who Keppel calls the sister he never had, and his runners has gotten him through this tough time.
”He is an inspiration,’’ Nichols said. “He has helped me do the best that I can.”
“We are arguably the best team he has ever had, so it is important that we be successful,’’ Stahl added. “He’s done a lot not only about running, but life in general. I do get emotional about him.”
Some day, Kris Keppel will coach others on beating cancer, and bless even more people.
Correspondent Larry Bugg can be reached at email@example.com.