The stretch run begins Monday with the first of three huge postseason weightlifting meets - county, district and states - for the unbeaten Nature Coast Technical Lady Sharks.
NCT (5-0) enters the 13th Hernando County Championship Meet at Central High's gymnasium attempting to accomplish something it has never achieved - defending last year's county crown.
NCT skipper Sharon Elliott, who was the architect of back-to-back CHS county titles in 2002-03, hasn't seen her team lose to another county squad this winter.
The Lady Sharks were also the highest placing Hernando County team (fourth) in the loaded fourth annual Disparti Invitational last month at River Ridge Middle/High School in New Port Richey.
The county meet is expected to attract the top 15 lifters from the five Hernando County programs -Central, Hernando, Nature Coast, Springstead and Weeki Wachee.
Each school is limited to a maximum of two lifters per each of the 10 weight classes.
Weigh-ins are set for 1:30 p.m. with action expected to begin across five platforms between 2:30-3 p.m.
Last winter, NCT snapped Springstead's six-year grip as county champs in the same building.
Coach Elliott agrees that Monday's challenge lies in the details.
"Attempting to make history is exciting," insisted Coach Elliott. "Last year, we were fortunate. Nerves can be an issue. We had three girls scratch out and still won the meet."
On NCT's goals, "The kids already want to print up T-Shirts," pointed out the third-year NCT mentor Elliott. "We want to come in confident, but not overconfident. Each girl has to evaluate her situation. Anything can happen in a big meet."
Due to conflicts with basketball teams at every school, the coaches settled on competing on Monday - not a traditional day to make weight or to compete.
"Cutting weight for our kids isn't as issue," declared Hernando County's defending Coach of the Year Elliott. "We have enough kids on the team that we could make some changes."
Though NCT hasn't competed since the Disparti Invite a month ago, Elliott does not see the layoff as a hindrance.
"We've had plenty of time to prepare for this meet," pointed out Elliott. "I was really impressed with the number of our girls who were committed and motivated enough to practice during the holidays."
NCT arrives with four Hernando County Honor Roll-leading candidates for first place: senior Alicia Gentz at 119, sophomore Ashley Gentz at 129, sophomore Annelise Rentas at 139 and senior Rachel Crayton at 183.
Alicia Gentz is a two-time county champion (winning in 2011 and 2013) while Crayton is also a defending champion from last winter.
According to Elliott, the top lifters are pretty easy to spot; the difficulty on repeating is gobbling up as many second-, third-, and fourth-place finishers.
"It'll come down to which team can get the most seconds, thirds and fourths," described Elliott. "We can't get sidetracked knowing we have a winner in a weight class - that's only seven points. In my book, this meet isn't cut and dry; there's a lot of strategy involved, especially in where we place our 15 girls."
Coach Elliott believed the meet will tilt on the efforts of senior Brianna Horn at 119/129, junior Bronte Cameron at 119/129, frosh Samantha Traudt at 129/139, senior Brittney Traudt at 154/169, sophomore JayNeika Brown at 169, sophomore Kailee Hamilton at 199 and senior Yesenia Chavez at unlimited.
"Everyone lifting for us has to get something," insisted Coach Elliott. "We're using this as a springboard for the district meet (District 5 Meet on Jan. 21 at River Ridge)."
As NCT is enjoying a terrific season, Hernando (4-1) has quietly become the county's second-best team.
In Year 4 under skipper Casey Ellis, the Leopards appear poised for their first Hernando County crown since Jim Derrico's team in 2004.
"I'd still say Nature Coast is the team to beat," detailed Coach Ellis. "But don't rule us out. We're bringing 15 lifters. Our strength lies in the final five weight classes."
To that end, Hernando County Honor Roll leaders, seniors Tana McDaniel at 154, Taylor Milligan at 199 and Cardeja Baylor at heavyweight, look like locks at those three divisions.
Milligan, who finished as a county runner-up at 183 last year to Crayton, was a county champion in 2012 at 199.
Ellis is banking on seniors Ashlee Cavanaugh at 129, Heather Rawson at 169, Taylor Day and Karolynn Hodges at 183 to supply much-needed second-place finishes.
Hernando's goals are simple.
"I want to see my kids put up some good numbers," emphasized Ellis. "This is the meet we've been looking forward to. We've had a pretty good season; we'll see how the cards fall on Monday."
Weeki Wachee's third season yielded its biggest scalp - a stunning 43-42 win over Springstead.
According to mentor Mike Fye, the Lady Hornets are expecting to bring 11 lifters.
WWHS will be led by senior and 2013 All-County selection Amber Lake. Lake defeated Baylor last winter by 20 pounds, 320-300.
But this year, Baylor is unbeaten and solved Lake in a dual meet, 335-325.
Senior Erin Moynihan has a solid chance to place at 129, as does Calleigh Brennan at 110.
"It's a crapshoot on where we'll end up as a team," pointed out Coach Fye. "One thing's for certain, I don't expect Nature Coast to lose. I'm telling my young kids to set their sights on this meet next year."
Tiny Central (0-6 overall) hasn't won this meet in eight winters. Former boys mentor Joe Nestor agreed to take over the reins practically as the season started.
According to Nestor, CHS will compete with four lifters on Monday.
"I left it up to Andrea (Crespo) as to which weight she wanted to compete in," identified Nestor about his only standout lifter. "She wants to go 129 or 139 but Nature Coast is loaded in those weights."
As far as the team to beat, "I have no idea who will win," Nestor said. "But when Coach Elliott was here she had some great teams."
On the Lady Bears' goals, "I just want our kids to get their personal-best lifts," said Nestor. "I wish they all could place within the top three of their weight classes."
It's a different setting for the Mariner Boulevard lifters. Take away three wins against Central and SHS would have gone winless at 0-5.
The Lady Eagles do have three Hernando County Honor Roll leaders arriving at Central in sophomore Kristina McCane at 101, junior Isabella Sorresso at 110 and senior Madeline Genuardi at 169.
Genuardi captured the county's 154-pound weight class last winter while McCane finished runner-up.
Senior Ty'Rhonza Harris, who placed as a county runner-up last winter, trails Alicia Gentz this season, 280-245.
Sophomore Justine Peppe ranks fourth at heavyweight while junior Sara Overa ranks fourth at 154.
Springstead's seventh-year mentor Mike Garofano did not return phone calls for comment.
At a Glance
What - 13th annual Hernando County Girls Weightlifting Championship Meet.
Who - Top 15 lifters from the five Hernando County programs: Central, Hernando, Nature Coast Technical, Springstead and Weeki Wachee. A maximum of two lifters from each school is permitted per each weight class. The defending champion is NCT.
Where - Central gymnasium.
When - Monday, weigh-ins begin at 1:30 p.m. Competition on five platforms is expected to begin between 2:30-3 p.m.
At Stake - Each of the 10 weight class winners is feted as Hernando County champion. Team champion is crowned Hernando County champion.
All-Time Individual Hernando County Champions (2004-13)
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
RK. SCHOOL NO.
1. Springstead 40
2. Hernando 20
2. Nature Coast Technical 20
4. Central 19
5. Weeki Wachee 1
By the Numbers: All-Time Hernando County Girls Weightlifting Team Champions
- Compiled by TONY CASTRO
YR SCHOOL HEAD COACH PTS.
2002 Central Sharon Elliott 57
2003 Central Sharon Elliott 65
2004 Hernando Jim Derrico 42
2005 Central Cliff Lohrey 47
2006 Central Cliff Lohrey 55
2007 Springstead Cecilia Page 43
2008 Springstead Mike Garofano 61
2009 Springstead Mike Garofano 52
2010 Springstead Mike Garofano 60
2011 Springstead Mike Garofano 73
2012 Springstead Mike Garofano 78
2013 Nature Coast Sharon Elliott 67