In a worst-case scenario, by noon on Saturday only one of Hernando County's five male cross-country programs may survive to race in next week's regional competitions.
Conversely, under optimum conditions, three local thinclad squads may advance to the second round of the FHSAA state series.
Saturday's Class 2A, District 6 Meet in Lake County features six complete teams: Hernando, Nature Coast, Pasco, Eustis, Hudson, Mount Dora.
The meet's starting gun is set to go off at 10 a.m. The defending district champion is Nature Coast.
The Sharks are attempting to make history along the hilly terrain located near Mount Dora Bible Christian School.
Nature Coast would love to become the first Hernando County cross-country team to carve out back-to-back district titles since Hernando's 2005-06 teams under Hall of Famer Ernie Chatman.
Head coach Eric Milholland's third edition on the California Street campus has raised its expectations. It's shooting for a highly improbable feat – a perfect score.
The Sharks, winners of three meets this fall, are seeking their third straight championship trophy this weekend.
Milholland believes his charges can cross the finish line 1-2-3-4-5.
The reason for the optimism: Nature Coast enters the meet possessing six of the nine fastest 5K clockings in the county this fall, featuring: junior James Harkless (16:44.81), senior Kevin Ciccione (16:50.00), senior Cody Van Natter (16:50.43), senior Stephen Murphy (17:26.98), junior Joe Clark (17:42.00) and freshman Austin Mulyck (17:52.86).
Harkless, Ciccione, Van Natter and Murphy all return from last year's district championship squad – the school's first in the sport.
The lone concern, according to Coach Milholland, is Mulyck – who has been hampered by a flu bug this week.
"Austin's not feeling well," explained Millholand, who went 0-for-6 in capturing districts at Central before relocating to Nature Coast. "We had by far our best practices leading up to this race. I thought we ran real well last week; so we're coming in with some momentum."
On the formula for preparing for districts, "We've cut down on the distance, but we're focusing on maintaining our intensity," said Milholland. "The guys know what's at stake."
On whether the Sharks prefer to be the hunted rather than the hunters, "We've got the six best times going into districts," shrugged Milholland. "We're raising the bar. We're shooting for a perfect score. Even if we don't get it, it's still a terrific goal. Last year we almost got it until (Hernando's Parker) Steinkamp broke it up (placing fifth)."
On his team's goal on Saturday, "The course is tough," noted Milholland. "It's got a couple nice hills. We've run it before (Oct. 20), so we know what to expect. I've told the boys, I don't care about their times. This race is a tactical one. We'd really like to post a perfect score."
Hernando isn't in Saturday's race to solve the Sharks. The Purple and Gold will have their hands full finishing in the top three to advance to regionals.
On a computer virtual meet, the Leopards are expected to place third by one point. Last year, Hernando finished third in the 2A-6 Meet held at Nature Coast.
This year, David Wilson, the school's fifth head coach in five years, won't have the graduated Steinkamp (48th place at states in 2011), and the team's number two runner in 2011, senior Brad Geisler, has not competed in six weeks.
The Leopards' future, however, is bright thanks to the efforts of freshman Tyler Pantley.
Pantley is coming off a personal-record 18:31.10 clocking in last week's Hernando/Citrus Distance Classic at McKethan Lake. Pantley enters Saturday's race as the highest ranking Leopard in the latest Honor Roll in 10th.
Twelve teams are expected to be represented in one of the toughest districts – Class 3A, District 6 – in the state this afternoon at nearby Crews Lake Park.
The field is expected to include: Belleview, Central, Citrus, Land O' Lakes, Sunlake, Lecanto, Mitchell, River Ridge, Sarasota, Springstead, Wiregrass Ranch and Zephyrhills.
The Bulls of Wiregrass Ranch are the defending champions.
Area coaches concur on one point: Wiregrass, Sarasota and Land O' Lakes will finish among the top three. The biggest question is who'll emerge as the fourth and final team to advance to regionals, Nov. 10 at Lecanto?
On paper, any one of four teams – Lecanto, Mitchell, Belleview or Springstead – could advance.
"To me, it all depends who shows up and who delivers Friday," explained third-year Springstead skipper Brandon Wright. "Like everybody else, we've got some kids battling sickness and injuries. But we're not making excuses."
Wright, whose first team placed 14th in districts in 2010 and improved to 8th in 2011, is hoping the Eagles can be represented in regionals for the first time in 13 seasons – or since Mike Umholtz reached regionals as an individual in 2000's 2A-II Meet.
"We know the course and that helps," explained Coach Wright. "We know where to pass guys – which is important. And we've practiced on the course a few times. Probably just as important, we have five guys who ran at this level last year."
According to Coach Wright, the Eagles' success on Friday in predicated on, "If our names are among the top four teams."
"A bad day," insisted Coach Wright, "is if any of the guys tell me afterward that they didn't empty the tank effort-wise. I'll be disappointed if I hear that."
The Eagles arrive at Crews Lake with three thinclads among the county's top 10, including: senior Carl Zee (17:29.00), and juniors James Amodie (17:32.76) and Jessie Laurenti (17:40.00).
In this exceptionally tough district, Central is looked at as a long shot to advance to regionals.
The Bears haven't reached as high as second place in districts since 2000. No Central runner has competed in regionals since 2008.
Central, which placed ninth out of nine teams in districts at McKethan Lake last fall, is led by junior Austin Gray (18:49.00) and senior Ben Orner (19:02.00).
Gray is ranked 14th in the latest Honor Roll while Orner arrives ranked 18th.