The Roman Empire - err, the Nature Coast Technical boys cross country program - was expected to burn following the departure of four superb starters from its 2012 team.
NCT lost three grizzly senior veterans - Cody Van Natter, Kevin Ciccione and Stephen Murphy - while junior Joe Clark opted not to compete this fall.
Those four were part of the five Sharks that fueled one of the most impressive runs on the California Street campus in Brooksville.
The fifth piece of the puzzle and the lone Shark from last year's final eight members of the Hernando County Honor Roll, James David Harkless, was the cornerstone of the team's recent amazing season and a unanimous choice as Hernando Today Runner of the Year.
Harkless was no slouch. The 6-foot, 155-pound senior functioned as the team's emotional leader and was the voice piece for fourth-year NCT skipper Eric Milholland.
Harkless was the team's captain and served as the team's backbone.
It certainly didn't hurt that he was the fastest runner returning from 2012's Class 2A seventh-place team at the FHSAA Finals in Leon County.
Harkless was born in New Port Richey as the older of two children to Kevin Harkless and Susan Rallo.
Harkless has resided in Spring Hill since third grade.
An adroit athlete, Harkless' initial organized sport at Fox Chapel Middle School was football.
He alternated between tight end and defensive end as a seventh- and eighth-grader.
In the spring, he began as a hurdler and quarter-miler. As an eighth-grader, he stayed with the 400, but won the Hernando County Middle School Athletic Conference Championship in the 1,600 meter (one mile).
"I tried out for track because I wanted to push myself," recalled Harkless. "I practiced long and hard. I'm the type of competitor that I didn't want to let anyone beat me. That mindset translated well in the meets.
"When I won that 1,600 in the county meet, it felt great," he added. "It was good to finally be the best at something."
After matriculating to NCT, he tried out for the football team.
"On the very first practice I suffered a severe injury. I caught my left ring finger on somebody's helmet," explained Harkless. "As a result, I sat out that entire season."
When track and field season rolled around, Harkless' finger had healed.
"It was OK for track, but I still don't have full range of motion," he added.
Harkless began the season at the bottom of the totem pole.
He ended up competing in the 800, 1,600 and as a member of the 4x800 relay.
The relay team of Harkless, Jeff and Cody Van Natter and Kevin Ciccione went as far as the 3A-Region II Meet in Hillsborough County. Their squad was disqualified for a baton violation.
Recalling his first prep season on the oval, "It was a learning experience," he said. "I needed to learn how to run each race differently."
Prior to his sophomore year, he passed on football and opted instead for the open spaces involved with cross country.
"All the cross country guys kept encouraging me to come out," he recalled. "I needed to come out. When I started, I was right there with everyone. I was already use to the heat. The big thing was I had to build up my endurance."
Harkless indicated the transformation to the sport was almost seamless.
"In was an older squad and those guys were so supportive," he pointed out. "As I learned the ropes I became more comfortable. It's a cool feeling to go out and run in the woods. It was almost entertaining; there was absolutely no pressure on me."
In Year 1 of cross country, Harkless adapted so well he competed in a school-record 11 meets for the Sharks and ranked fourth in the circuit with a 5-kilometer clocking of 16:48.00.
Only Hernando senior Parker Steinkamp (third) and teammates Cody Van Natter (first) and Ciccione (second) posted better times.
After a season where the Sharks placed fifth at states at the Little Everglades Ranch course in Dade City, Harkless was named to his first thinclad All-County team.
In the spring of 2012, Harkless continued to sizzle along the oval, reaching states in two events: 1,600 and as a member of the 4x800.
Harkless won the 2A-II Meet's 1,600 at Jacksonville's The Bolles School in 4:34.39 - edging out Orlando-Lake Nona junior Joseph Loyack by 14/100ths of a second.
The 4x800 crew of Harkless, Wyatt Hessler, Tyler Moore and Ciccione placed third in the Duval County event in 8:16.87.
A week later at states, Harkless finished out of the money in 11th place in the 1,600 in 4:37.64, while the 4x800 squad placed 13th out of 17 teams in 8:17.46.
Following his pattern of success, Harkless' second cross country season also ended at states as the Sharks finished seventh overall out of 24 teams at Tallahassee-Apalachee Regional Park.
In 11 3.1-mile races, Harkless finished with a county-best 16:44.81 clocking.
In this past season's track and field campaign, Harkless, Hessler, Van Natter and Ciccione combined to reach states again in the 4x800, placing 12th overall in 8:23.48.
The foursome had qualified for states by placing fourth in the 2A-II Meet at Bolles.
In that meet, Harkless' dream of reaching states in an individual event - his specialty, 800 meters - was dashed when he placed sixth in 2:00.85 (only the top four regional placers advance to states).
The good news is of the five runners who finished ahead of Harkless in that event, four were seniors led by Dunnellon senior Chris Jackson in 1:57.97.
That set the table for an incredible senior campaign.
Harkless competed in a county-best 10 cross country races and never lost to any other Hernando County competitor.
As a model of consistency, he was the first Shark to the finish line in all 10 events.
In his wake, he notched a school-record five individual victories (NCT Invitational, Mitchell Invite, Largo Invite, Citrus Invite at Inverness' Whispering Pines Park and Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic at McKethan Lake).
He set another school record with back-to-back-to-back wins at NCT, Mitchell and Largo. The Hernando County record is four in a row by Hernando's Ben Martucci in 2006.
He also set a Shark record with six career wins, surpassing Cody Van Natter's five victories. The Hernando County 5K mark is held Martucci with 11 career wins.
With the exception of his first race (Lecanto Invite) and his last (FHSAA Finals at Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park) - Harkless finished in the top 10 in eight straight races, setting another school record.
The county record is held by Martucci, who placed in the top 10 ten times in 11 races in 2006.
Harkless closed out an outstanding prep cross country career placing 21st at states in a career-best 16:34.55, leading the Sharks to a 22nd-place finish in Leon County.
Harkless concluded his Shark thinclad career ranked fifth among the school's 66 all-time runners.
Area coaches were unanimous in agreement with their choice of Harkless as not only ROY, but to his third straight All-County team.
"I was extremely happy to win this honor (ROY), especially without anyone to really push me," pointed out Harkless. "Last year, I was dealing with some injuries, a little tendonitis, but I thought Cody (Van Natter) deserved it again."
On Harkless' leadership skills, "My job this year was to show the younger guys what had to be done," he said.
Though NCT suffered the personnel losses from 2012, the Sharks returned to states for a school-record fourth straight time.
"Looking at these guys in practice, we didn't have as much talent as we've had in the past," detailed Harkless. "But this year's team was willing to work that much harder to compensate.
"Sure, I would have loved to have won another district championship, but this group was special because all the hard work our guys put in paid off in reaching states again."
In looking in the mirror Harkless believes the biggest strides he made in the sport was on pushing the envelope of his abilities in practice and in meets.
On the eve of his fourth and final track season, he's set his sights on eclipsing the NCT school record for the 800 (1:59.7) and 400 (51:00).
Harkless is also an excellent student/athlete, who carries a 3.4 grade point average in the law cluster.
His long-term goal is to become a police officer. Harkless' inspiration arrives from an uncle, who worked as a Hernando County Sheriff's officer.
"Law enforcement is something I want to do," identified Harkless. "I want to be able to help people."
Harkless is undecided on his choice of college. He's currently balancing offers from Nova Southeastern, the University of North Florida and Warner University. Each has offered an opportunity to compete in cross country and track and field while studying history.
Before turning toward track, Harkless wanted to thank his parents "for being so supportive," Coach Milholland "for always pushing and not allowing me to settle," and God "for giving me all the gifts he's presented to me."
"I'd liked to be remembered for always being there for everyone," he said. "I'd like to be the one person any of my teammates could trust. Most importantly, I really want to be remembered for working as hard as I could."
By the numbers: NCT's James Harkless (2011-13)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
* Denotes All-County selection
# Denotes Runner of the Year
NCT's James Harkless' 2013 Seasonal Review
1. Lecanto Invitational 16th 17:19.00
2. NCT Invitational 1st 17:14.84
3. Mitchell Invitational 1st 17:18.00
4. Largo Invitational 1st 17:03.63
5. Land O' Lakes Invitational 9th 17:00.00
6. Citrus Invitational 1st 16:50.25
7. Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic 1st 16:41.61
8. Class 2A, District 7 Meet 2nd 17:02.18
9. Class 2A, Region II 7th 16:41.77
10. Class 2A State Finals 21st 16:34.55