Prior to today's Lecanto Invitational cross-country meet, two key issues stand out among the female Hernando County distance runners.
First and foremost, the coaching landscape continues to be altered with four new coaches at the helm: Eric Milholland at Nature Coast, Kevin Bittinger at Hernando, Elisa Awtrey at Weeki Wachee and Jennifer Adams at Central.
Only Springstead's veteran mentor, Joel Myers, returns from last year's coaching fraternity.
Springstead, which has ruled the past three seasons at Hernando County champion under Myers, faces a difficult challenge to four-peat, especially from the Lady Sharks.
Here's a snapshot of each local program.
The 2011 Springstead thinclad squad performed like a rollercoaster. Due to injuries and illness, the Lady Eagles were not consistent.
At their worst, Springstead posted the dreaded NTS (no team score) at the Citrus Invitational at Whispering Pines.
The Lady Eagles were also 27th out of 28 teams in their division of the Pre-State Meet in Dade City, and placed 13th out of 22 teams at the Mitchell Invitational at Starkey Park.
In perhaps its best performance, Springstead placed runner-up in the Hernando-Citrus Distance Classic. But that was followed up with a fifth-place effort in the critical Class 3A, District 6 Meet at McKethan Lake.
Springstead failed to qualify for regionals as a team as only freshman Tiana Newton advanced to regionals – where she finished 37th overall.
Graduation claimed Kailey Genrich and Devon Rennie – both were four-year starters. Genrich was a three-time All-County performer. Rennie was a 2011 All-County pick.
A third starter, Jenna Barbee, was lost as the school district was rezoned. Barbee, a sophomore, was rezoned to Central.
Springstead's strength lies in its solid 1-2 punch, returning All-County performers Newton and Ty'Rhonza Harris.
Newton is also the county's defending Runner of the Year. She posted the county's fastest time last season at 20:25.59. Harris was ranked second with 3.1-mile personal best of 20:58.19.
Springstead has two other returning starters: sophomore Amanda Santana (ranked 29th in 26:40.91) and junior Alexandra Zieman (ranked 22nd at 24:31.80).
New faces on the team include: freshman Alyssa Menendez, sophomores Kayla Brittain, and Noelle Gupton and junior Wilena Little.
According to Coach Myers, though Little is on the roster, don't expect the two-time track and field state qualifier to excel in distance running. She's basically on the team to stay in shape for the 2013 track season.
With the loss of three key starters, Coach Myers is downplaying any chance of a Lady Eagle four-peat.
"We're so young right now, I seriously don't know how we'll finish (in the county)," he said. "We have two great runners with Tiana and Ty'Rhonza, but you need five. After those two we've got a lot of question marks.
"In my book, we were fortunate to beat Nature Coast last year," he added. "They're the team to beat this year. I just really hope as the season progresses we get better."
On Newton, who was home schooled last year and did not compete in track and field, Myers said, "Physically, she's so much stronger than she was a year ago. She's really my only true distance runner.
"What I like most? She put in more than enough miles during the summer. Hopefully that'll translate to another great season."
On Harris, according to the coach, "She, too, has put in the mileage."
On the loss of Barbee to the Lady Bears, "She'll probably be their No. 1 runner. If she would have been with us that would have given our team a nice 1-2-3. But what are you going to do? She's gone," Myers said.
On losing Genrich and Rennie, "We'll really miss their leadership. Right now, we don't have anybody to fill that void," he said.
On the team's individuals, "Gupton will not open the season with us. She's got a knee issue," Myers said.
"Menendez could be a dandy. She was a sprinter in middle school. I'm just hoping she has that 3-mile gene.
"Brittain could really help us. She was a half-miler on the track team."
On returning to regionals as a team, "Our district is absolutely brutal. Nobody loses anybody this year. A lot of teams, though, are dominated by seniors," Myers said.
According to Myers, Springstead will be successful this season, "If we get better over the course of the season."
With ex-Lady Eagle Amanda Kling attempting to complete her master's degree, she did not return for her fifth season at Nature Coast.
Instead, boys mentor Eric Milholland will also serve as the girls coach.
The Lady Sharks are expected to improve on their second-place county and district finishes, and a disappointing seventh-place finish in regionals.
Nature Coast graduated seven seniors including 2011 All-County pick Tatiana Lasanta.
The core group of returning starters features All-County pick Alyssa Deligio, Mary Thomson, Crystal Burchhardt and Brianna Horn. All four are juniors.
Milholland admits he will not modify his strict coaching stance in also guiding the girls program.
"I'm an intense guy. I've told the girls listen to the message, not the tone," he said. "I'm not trying to harass anyone. If someone doesn't understand what I'm asking them to do, then come see me."
Milholland has already anointed Horn and Thomson as captains.
"They're both on board with what we need," he said.
On DeLigio, "She's our workhorse. What I like most? She's really hungry to succeed. She wants to perform well," Milholland said.
On Horn, according to Milholland, "She's extremely bright. She knows what to do. Right now, she's coming off an ankle injury. Her best days are coming."
On Thomson, he added, "I think you'll really see her blossom this year. She's one of five girls who could break our school record."
On Burchhardt, "She has so much potential," the coach said. "I think she'll tell you that she can give more in cross-country. Hopefully, you'll see that this year."
Milholland indicated that Brielle Perlingini and Kaylee Arvay may also crack the Lady Sharks' starting lineup.
"Perlingini is a swimmer like Burchhardt, so we don't have her all the time," noted Coach Milholland. "But she's a different runner this year. She's a lot more focused."
Two freshmen, Alexa Lacy and Summer March, along with Hernando transfer Jonica Herzek will add much-needed depth.
"When we do repeat miles, Lacy is our fastest girl," pointed out Milholland. "She splits time with us and the soccer team. She could really help us."
On the Lady Sharks' overall picture, "I like the direction we're heading. We're doing a lot more things together on the girls side. We're pushing two things: the sense of pack running and getting along.
"On some days, our girls team looks better than the boys," said Milholland. "My greatest concern? We have eight runners. We need to find five solid runners."
When Erin Courtney opted to concentrate on her master's degree, Hernando High turned to its fourth girls cross-country coach in four seasons – athletic director Kevin Bittinger.
Hernando placed fourth, out of five teams, in the Class 2A, District 6 Meet at Nature Coast and had two thinclads qualify for regionals.
Of the Lady Leopards' six runners in their last district meet, two have not returned: Alexandria Gommier and Brianna Boswell. Of the two, Boswell transferred to Weeki Wachee.
Boswell was the team's finest runner in 2011, finishing 46th in the Class 2A, Region II Meet, three places ahead of Tabatha Loose.
Loose, a senior, will be joined this year by returning lettermen Alaina Avirett, Caroline Stokely and Berkeley LaPorte.
Leopard newcomers include freshmen Heaven Benson and Ashley Morris; sophomore Cindy Cacare; juniors Isabella Laughinghouse and Breanna Wardlow; along with seniors Kendall Raney and Ashley Sims.
On Loose, "Tabby is our little workhorse. She's our leader. She's certainly performed well so far in practice," Bittinger said.
Coach Bittinger is also touting Morris, "This isn't the first time she's ever run; you can tell by seeing her out there. I see a constancy factor with her."
On Sims, a tremendous athlete in soccer and softball, "In middle school she was the county mile champion. She's an athlete and a competitor. Ashley is the type of kid we want to come out. The worst thing she can do is make our team better," the coach said.
On the remainder of his team, he added, "We need the returning girls to all step up. To me, a lot of these kids haven't been pushed before; I think that'll change after we see what's at Lecanto."
County-wise, "Milholland is a good guy and good coach," explained Bittinger. "They'll (Nature Coast) definitely put in the work with him around."
Bittinger was asked if the Lady Leopards can get out of districts.
"This is my first rodeo. Saturday will be the first time I'm ever been at a cross-country meet," he said. "I'm new to the sport and the girls. If the girls are willing to work, then we'll have a chance (on reaching regionals)."
In 2010-11, Weeki Wachee had two female runners participate in the sport. Neither has returned in 2012.
The boys cross-country coach, Elisa Awtrey, will also serve as the girls coach.
At press time, Awtrey's lone competitor is the ex-Lady Leopard Boswell.
On Boswell, "She's extremely motivated," described Coach Awtrey. "She runs with her brother (Marcel) all the time."
Like Hernando, Central recently hired its fourth new coach in four seasons, Jennifer Adams, to replace Christina Brandel.
Adams, a Central graduate, played basketball and ran cross-country for the Lady Bears.
In 2011, Brandel's team concluded the season placing eighth, out of 10 teams, in the rugged Class 3A, District 6 Meet at McKethan Lake.
She did not return a message for this story.