Four local races across two days of competition in Brooksville will determine who advances to the second leg of the FHSAA cross country state series next week.
At McKethan Lake Park Thursday afternoon, Springstead hosts the 10-team Class 3A, District 7 Meets.
McKethan Lake is located approximately seven miles north of downtown Brooksville on U.S. 41. It consists of a flat, paved, 5,000-meter course with large oak trees providing maximum shade.
The field is expected to include: Belleview, Fivay, Citrus, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Lecanto, Mitchell, River Ridge, Springstead and Zephyrhills.
The girls 3.1-mile race is set for 4:30 p.m. followed by the boys race at 5:05 p.m. (weather permitting).
Late Friday afternoon at Nature Coast Technical, another 10 schools are expected to be represented in the Class 2A, District 7 Meets.
The field features: Central, Hernando, Nature Coast, Weeki Wachee, Crystal River, Pasco, Hudson, Gulf, Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel.
The defending two-time boys district champion is NCT while the defending girls champion is also NCT.
The girls 5K race is set for 5:15 p.m. followed by the boys race at 5:50 p.m. (weather permitting).
In both competitions with seven complete teams at the starting line, the top four finishing teams and top 15 individual placers will advance to regionals Nov. 2.
The Class 2A, Region II Meet is again hosted by NCT, while the Class 3A, Region II Meet will be held at Orlando-Lake Nona.
Through seven races this season, revamped NCT has far and away been the most consistent local team by notching six top 10 team finishes.
Last Thursday, NCT didn't repeat as race champions in the 10th annual Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic at McKethan, but turned heads.
Minus three thinclads for a variety of reasons, the Sharks placed runner-up, good enough to earn their fourth straight Hernando County title - all under skipper Eric Milholland.
NCT will be represented by the county's leading candidate for Runner of the Year, senior James Harkless.
In seven 5K races, Harkless placed in the top 10 six times - winning a school-record five meets (NCT Invitational, Mitchell, Largo, Citrus and the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic).
Harkless enters districts red-hot thanks to his personal-record and county-leading 16:41.61 clocking last week at McKethan Lake.
The two-time All-County cross country selection Harkless will be joined in Sharks' lineup by seniors Nick Conway and Colton Lancsarics, junior Conner Schwefringhaus, and sophomores Austin Mulyck, Jacob Rockwell and Matt Aubertin.
Mulyck, who missed last week's meet (out of town), has registered the county's second-fastest 5K time of 17:10.41. Along with Harkless, he is expected to form a solid 1-2 Shark punch.
NCT is attempting a rare district championship three-peat. That's only been done twice before in 41 seasons: by the Hernando Leopards - coached by Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman - in 1978-80 and 1991-94.
"Having Austin back definitely helps," detailed Coach Milholland. "I thought there'd be some disappointment after we lost five of seven starters from last year, but this crew has come a long way."
At press deadline, Rockwell was the lone health concern. He's still recovering from a flu bug.
"We're calling Jacob 'Sir coughs a lot,'" said Milholland. "If he can go Friday, he could really help us. If he can't go, that could be a big factor."
On Harkless attempting to win three races for the second time this season along his home course, "Being No. 1, you have your days," predicted Milholland. "When you're the leader, you've got a target on your back; there's always someone out there who's better.
"I keep telling James, it's not about who's the fastest on race day; it's all about who runs the smartest and who runs the toughest during the second and third mile," pointed out Milholland.
For a possible district three-peat, Milholland explained, "We have to beat green (Gulf). They're our main competition. We've seen them twice and beaten them twice, but they're very capable of winning."
In a pre-race virtual meet, NCT nipped Gulf, 66-68. Milholland expects Crystal River (69), Pasco (97), Hernando (125) and Weeki Wachee (128) to follow.
Milholland sees the Leopards on the bubble as far as advancing to regionals as a team.
HHS sophomores Charles Steinkamp (seasonal-best 17:46.47) and Tyler Pantley (18:06.55), along with Central senior Austin Gray (17:55.84) all appear as excellent bets to advance to the regionals.
??? How times have changed for the Lady Shark thinclads.
After their first four years of district competition, NCT posted three dreaded NTSs (no team score) and placed eighth out of 10 teams.
On Friday, it'll attempt to earn back-to-back district titles.
The last Hernando County female thinclad squad to turn that trick was Lisa Bilodeau's Central Lady Bears in 1999-00.
NCT arrives with momentum. The Lady Sharks have notched six impressive top 10 finishes in six meets - winning three trophies: NCT Invitational, Citrus Invitational and the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic.
The Lady Sharks enter with back-to-back wins led by seven of the top 10 thinclads in the county: sophomores Alexa Lacy (20:46.98) and Summer March (21:54.00), and seniors Alyssa Deligio (20:48.28), Crystal Burchhardt (21:34.00), Brianna Horn (21:59.35), Mary Thomson (22:13.13) and Kaylee Arvay (22:31.91).
In another strong omen, Lacy, Burchhardt, Horn and Thomson all turned in their seasonal-best times last week at McKethan Lake.
"Last week, we wanted to be at our best," pointed out Coach Milholland, who's turned the program around. "Lacy and Deligio are helping us get it done. Those two have gone back and forth as our leaders."
On how much the home course might mean, "I think it's huge," declared Milholland. "There are teams spending the night here for the next two races. Staying in the same routine is huge for us."
In Milholland's pre-race virtual meet, NCT edged Gulf, 31-46, followed by Ridgewood (94), Pasco (115), Crystal River (123), Hernando (134) and Wesley Chapel (159).
Three programs - Central, Weeki Wachee and Hudson - are not expected to fill complete squads.
"It's nice to go in as the No. 1 team on paper," noted Milholland. "But Gulf has beaten us both times we've faced them so far. Fortunately, we're coming into our own and we're competing at home.
"We're thinking 'We can do this.' The pack running is huge," remarked Milholland as to the key down the stretch. "So far, it's saved our bacon. Our No. 4-6 runners have almost run on top of each other - that's a great thing at this point in the season."
As far as individuals, Milholland believes Hernando sophomore Ashley Morris (22:03.06), who is ranked 11th in the virtual meet, could join the Lady Sharks in regionals.
??? The last two 3A district meets have not been kind to Springstead's veteran mentor Joel Myers.
A pair of third-place district finishes in 3A-3 in 2009-10 gave way to forgettable fifth- and seventh-place finishes the past two seasons.
That district misfortune, however, appears to be in the rearview mirror. In six meets this fall, SHS has notched four top 10 finishes.
Oddly enough all 10 of Springstead's varsity runners have yet to all compete in a race this fall.
Last week during the Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic, Hernando County's two-time Runner of the Year, junior Tiana Newton, was absent due to illness.
SHS barely lost to Lecanto last week without Newton, whose seasonal best is 21:25.00.
With Newton in tow, SHS feels it not only has a chance to return to regionals, but might have an outside shot at capturing its first-ever district championship.
The Lady Eagles' optimism is based on strength of the sensational season presented by sophomore and first-year thinclad Amber Philpott.
Coming into Thursday's 3A-7 Meet, Philpott has placed among the top 3 in five meets.
Though she missed the Land O' Lakes Invitational (due to illness), Philpott has beaten 558 of the 562 runners (99.3 percent) she's faced this season.
She opened the season at Lecanto with an eye-popping 19:16.05.
The previous Hernando County record was held by Hernando senior Leela Hadsock at the 2004 Class 2A state meet in Tampa, 19:17.00.
Hadsock, a four-year starter, placed sixth in that elite meet before attending the University of Tampa on a scholarship.
Last week, Philpott raised eyebrows with a 19:01.68 clocking at McKethan. The win at McKethan was her second in a row - another school record - giving her three individual victories in one season (another school record).
Despite the Lady Eagles' solid 1-2 punch, Springstead's regional hopes hinge on senior Alexandra Zieman (22:38.98), junior Amanda Santana (26:10.39), sophomores Joy Jackson (22:32.19) and Julia Diven (24:08.00), and freshman Toni Pandolfo (24:11.50).
"Things are looking pretty good," admitted Myers prior to the race. "Tiana is back and we're as healthy as we've been all year. Alex (Zieman) has really strung together some great races. We'll go as far as our No. 4-5 runners take us."
On forecasting 3A-7, "I see Mitchell as the favorites, if their times are right," noted Myers on the discrepancies associated with some of the shorter 3.1-mile courses. "I see Land O' Lakes as second and us right there in third. To me, Lecanto is fourth. I don't think there's any doubt that those four teams will advance."
??? For the boys, 3A-7 host Springstead has been in a funk.
The Eagles haven't been represented in regionals since Mike Umholtz reached the 2A-II Meet in 2000.
SHS mentor Brandon Wright has watched his thinclads close out his first three seasons at districts in 14th (2010), eighth (2011) and sixth (2012).
According to the fourth-year skipper Wright, "Land O' Lakes and Lecanto are clearly the two best teams in districts. Then I see a battle between Mitchell, Belleview and us."
On predicting the Eagles' outcome, "Our problem all year has been at No. 5," insisted Wright. "After our fourth runner came across at McKethan last week, we were beating Nature Coast. But you've got to have an entire team, not just four guys."
The Eagles' undisputed leader is senior Jai Jackson. Jackson set a personal record with a fine 18:04.82 clocking last week at McKethan.
Surging senior James Amodie (18:19.77), junior Josh Page (18:36.62) and sophomore Jeff Amodie (18:43.12) give the Eagles four reasons for postseason hope.
According to Coach Wright, the key to advancing rests with senior Dennis "D.J." Carroll.
Since Carroll's personal-best 19:12.00 clocking at Crews Lake, he's added over 2½ minutes to his time.
"I had a talk with D.J.," explained Coach Wright. "If he can step it up, we definitely have a chance. He knows where he needs to be. There's nothing physically wrong with him."
On how much running at McKethan will help or hinder the Eagles' cause, "We have a much older team this year," noted Coach Wright. "They've run McKethan countless times. They know the ins and outs - in the long run, running at McKethan has to help us."
At a Glance
What - Class 3A, District 7 Cross Country Meets.
Who - Ten schools are expected to be represented including: Belleview, Fivay, Citrus, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Lecanto, Mitchell, River Ridge, Springstead and Zephyrhills.
Where - McKethan Lake Park. approximately seven miles north of downtown Brooksville on U.S. 41.
When - Thursday, girls race set for 4:30 p.m. followed by the boys' race at 5:05 p.m. (weather permitting).
At Stake - With seven complete teams at the starting line, the top four finishing teams and top 15 individual placers advance to Nov. 2's Class 3A, Region II Meet at Orlando-Lake Nona.
What - Class 2A, District 7 Cross Country Meets.
Who - Ten schools are expected to be represented including: Central, Hernando, Nature Coast Technical, Weeki Wachee, Crystal River, Pasco, Hudson, Gulf, Ridgewood and Wesley Chapel. Defending two-time boys district champion is NCT. Defending girls champion is NCT.
Where - Nature Coast Technical
When - Friday, girls race set for 5:15 p.m. followed by the boys race at 5:50 p.m. (weather permitting).
At Stake - With seven complete teams at the starting line, the top four finishing teams and top 15 individual placers advance to Nov. 2's Class 2A, Region II Meet again hosted by NCT.