Has it really been 10 years since a Hernando County cross country program has returned both its boys and girls teams to the state's ultimate course?
It's true. Not since 2003-04 when Hernando's thinclads - guided by Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman and Erin Sullivan, respectively - has a school made repeat visits to states by both teams. That was the case until this season.
On Saturday, Nature Coast Technical's boys and girls distance teams will venture to the 67th annual Class 2A boys race and 40th annual girls race at Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park.
In addition, Springstead's sensational rookie, sophomore Amber Philpott, is the county's lone representative in the 3A girls race.
The stakes are enormous. Trophies will be awarded to the top two teams while medallions are presented to the top 10 individual placers.
Of Hernando County's final 14 runners (13 from NCT) this season, Philpott appears to have the finest chance of earning first team All-State honors with a top-10 effort.
Across the past 39 state finals, only one Hernando County female runner has navigated to a state gold medal.
Hernando High's Gina Bawden, a move-in from Auckland, New Zealand, captured the 3A state championship in 1993 behind a 2-mile clocking of 12:12.
The sport switched to the current 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) clocking for both boys and girls in 2002.
Five days after winning the state title, Bawden rode the coattails of the prestigious victory to sign a Division I scholarship with the University of South Florida.
Two Hernando County males have come close to duplicating Bawden's efforts.
On the boys side, Springstead senior Eric Cummings finished second to Tampa-Robinson's Troy Carpenter by three seconds during the 1991 3A race at Jacksonville's Florida Community College.Carpenter won the 3-mile race in 15:18.
In 2006, Hernando High senior Ben Martucci placed second in the 3.1-mile 2A state finals at Dade City's Little Everglades Ranch in 16:29.
The diminutive Philpott has turned heads in her first cross country season.
Two weeks ago at McKethan Lake, she shattered the Hernando County record for a 5K race in 18:31.41. The previous record was set a week prior by her during the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic, 19:01.68.
After just missing advancing to states in track and field in the 3,200 meters this past spring (she finished fifth in the rugged regional where only the top four advanced to states), Philpott has competed in seven races.
In first her three meets, she placed third twice (Lecanto and Mitchell Invitationals). In between, she won the NCT Invitational.
After missing the Land O' Lakes Invitational at Crews Lake due to illness, she's reeled off a county-record four straight 5K wins (Citrus Invitational, Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic, 3A-District 7 and 3A-Region II).
Remarkably, she's defeated 614 of the 618 runners she's competed against (99.4 percent).
On Saturday at 9:10 a.m., she'll attempt to journey where no Springstead female has ever trekked.
Tallahassee-Chiles' Susan Givens captured last year's 3A state gold medal in 17:48.78.
Six of last year's top 10 3A runners have all graduated, including the top three finishers in 2012.
Despite her terrific season, Philpott is seeded seventh. Seventh-year Lady Eagle mentor Joel Myers, who coached Philpott in track and field last spring, isn't about to apply any more pressure to the current situation.
"She ran by herself this week in practice," noted Myers, whose Springstead team last reached states in 2010. "Nobody on our team can keep up with her. To me, this is just another race. That's how I'm selling it."
On Philpott's emergence, "She nearly made states in a brutal regional and since then she worked out all summer," detailed Myers. "As the season has progressed she's gotten stronger and stronger. On the course, nothing seems to faze her."
Saturday's race includes a strategic plan.
"Mentally, she's really strong. But she's been used to running alone; that's not going to happen on Saturday," declared Myers. "We'd like her to stay up with the Estero girls. If she beats two of them, she'll have a tremendous meet. If she beats three of them, she'll have a chance to medal."
Philpott literally faces an uphill climb in the Leon County event.
"There are 18 girls who have run a sub-19 minutes in this race, so it's loaded," identified Myers. "I'd like to see her just run a good race. If she medals, so much the better. She's used being in front. That won't be case this time. She's run against good competition, not great competition - that changes the dynamic going in."
??? NCT's Lady Sharks advanced to states for a school-record second straight time behind a sixth-place finish at home last Saturday at Brooksville's soggy 2A-II Meet.
NCT is expected to be at full strength behind five seniors, Alyssa Deligio (seasonal-best 20:27.00), Crystal Burchhardt (21:34.00), Brianna Horn (21:59.35), Mary Thomson (22:10.54) and Kaylee Arvay (22:31.91), and sophomores Alexa Lacy (20:46.98) and Summer March (21:54.00).
Burchhardt (bad back) and Arvay (disciplined for missing practice) did not compete last weekend.
In 2012, NCT placed 13th out of 24 teams in the 2A state finals. Six of last year's seven thinclads are back including: Deligio, Burchhardt, Horn, Thomson, Lacy and March.
Besides Deligio establishing a new course record last weekend at NCT, eclipsing Burchhardt's 2012 mark of 20:28.60, Thomson added another noteworthy performance.
Thomson will be extending her Hernando County record of 5K races with her 37th and final performance on Saturday.
Thomson snapped Hernando High's 2007 graduate Anna Gary's previous county mark of 35.
Based on the season's fastest times, Nature Coast head coach Eric Milholland admits the Lady Sharks will be hard-pressed to surpass last year's 13th-place showing.
"Based on average times, we'll finish 12th," noted the second-year skipper Milholland, the county's defending Coach of the Year. "Based on the fastest time, we'll finish 17th.
"To be honest, we worked a lot harder last year to finish 13th. This year's team hasn't worked as hard," he detailed. "Before last week, I got the feeling a couple of girls have already checked out for the season. It was good to see us pull together as a team at regionals.
"Right now, I don't know if I can motivate them," he added. "I have no fire and brimstone speech ready. Our kids are happy to make states. They're happy to have made it this far. My approach at this stage of the season was to raise the intensity and decrease the mileage. We're banking on keeping our legs fresh."
On the familiarity with the course, "I heard they've widen the course in a couple spots and because of it during the Prestate Meet, the times dramatically dropped," pointed out Milholland. "There's a nice set of trails and couple slight inclines. I think it's a PR (person record)-type course."
For the sixth time in seven seasons and a school-record fourth year in a row (all under Milholland), the Nature Coast boys will be represented at states.
NCT has placed 20th (2011), fifth (2011) and seventh (2012) over the past three state finals.
The Sharks will enter the elite meet with six runners featuring: seniors James Harkless (county-best 16:41.61), Nick Conway (18:13.63) and Colton Lancsarics (19:07.55), and sophomores Austin Mulcyk (16:51.02), Jacob Rockwell (18:32.39) and Matt Aubertin (19:08.00).
Senior Conner Schwefringhaus, who blazed a personal-best 18:24.29 clocking last week at NCT, will miss Saturday's meet due to a cruise commitment.
"Conner did terrific last week, I was really impressed with how well he ran," explained Milholland. "But he told me about this cruise over a month ago. With him, we could possibly finish 19th. Without him I expect us to finish roughly 20th."
Milholland believes 2A-II champ Winter Park-Trinity Prep will dethrone Jacksonville-Bishop Kenny as state champ.
"Trinity looks pretty solid. According to the virtual meet, they'll beat McKeel, 52-115," noted Milholland. "They'll walk in as the favorites and walk out as champs. They (Trinity Prep) were very impressive here last week."
Individually, NCT's two top thinclads, Harkless and Mulcyk, are seeded 26th and 35th.
"James (Harkless) has plenty of work to do to finish in top 10," described Milholland, "Thank goodness James and Austin are our two returnees from last year's race. For the other four guys, this is all new for them."
At a Glance
What - FHSAA Cross Country Finals
Who - Nature Coast boys and girls in 2A, Springstead's Amber Philpott in 3A.
Where - Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park.
When - Saturday; 2A girls race at 7:55 a.m., 2A boys race at 8:45 a.m. and 3A girls race at 9:10 a.m.
At Stake - State championship. Trophies awarded to the top two teams while medallions are presented to the top 10 individual placers.
By the Numbers: NCT's All-Time Boys Cross Country State Results
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YR CLASS PLACE COACH
2007 2A 14th/24 teams Armen Merjanian
2008 2A 13th/24 teams Armen Merjanian
2010 3A 20th/12 teams Eric Milholland
2011 2A 5th/24 teams Eric Milholland
2012 2A 7th/24 teams Eric Milholland
By the Numbers: NCT's All-Time Girls Cross Country State Results
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YR CLASS PLACE COACH
2012 2A 13th/24 teams Eric Milholland