If 5-kilometer fans were adrift somewhere last year, they missed Brooksville's Nature Coast enjoying a season for the ages.
In all, the Sharks competed in a county-high 11 cross-country races last fall.
Head coach Eric Milholland's thinclads literally had to erect a new trophy case with all the hardware they collected.
Nature Coast returned home with a school-record six championships: Zak Lukas Invitational; The Bear Run; Citrus Invitational; Hernando-Citrus Distance Classic; Class 2A, District 6 Meet and Class 2A, Region II Meet.
Unfortunately for the Shark opponents, the cupboard is far from bare.
Of the seven Sharks who crossed the finish line in the Class 2A FHSAA Finals at the Little Everglades Ranch course in Dade City in 2011, five are back in the fold to help improve on last year's fifth-place finish.
Is it any wonder on the eve of the Sharks' season opener Saturday morning at the Lecanto Invitational that Nature Coast is perceived as the county's finest male distance-running program?
Here's a look at each of this season's Hernando County teams.
In year number nine of cross-country at the California Street campus, the Sharks have set up a "Springstead wrestling-type" schedule in hopes of better preparing the squad for the 66th annual FHSAA Finals set for Nov. 17 along Leon County's Apalachee Regional Park course.
Besides many of standard local meets, Nature Coast is expecting to face stiff competition at Lecanto, the Pre-State Meet in Tallahassee and the Wiregrass Ranch-hosted Run with the Bulls.
"We made the schedule as difficult as possible," explained Nature Coast's third-year mentor and Hernando County's defending Coach of the Year Milholland. "The tougher meets will hopefully get us ready for the end (states). All of the kids have increased their mileage over the summer to help prepare them for this point in the season."
On the eve of the Lecanto Invitational, "We're pushing hard in practice," noted Milholland. "We're pushing the line between hurting and not getting injured; there's a fine line."
Graduation cost the Sharks two starters: Tyler Moore and Austin Stratton.
Moore posted a personal best of 17:03.96 to finish ranked sixth in the county. He was a two-time All-County selection in 2010-11.
Stratton ranked ninth in the final Hernando County Honor Roll behind a 3.1-mile-best clocking of 17:29.26.
The reason for the team's optimism begins with five veteran returning starters: seniors Cody Van Natter, Kevin Ciccone, Stephen Murphy and Will Sandifer along with junior James Harkless.
Of this quintet, Van Natter and Ciccone are two-time All- County picks in 2010-11. Van Natter is also the circuit's two-time Runner of the Year.
Van Natter, who posted the county's fastest 5K time in 2010 at 16:42.66, lowered it in 2011 to 16:12.55. Ciccone wasn't much further back with a personal-record 16:22.12 clocking.
Both Murphy and Harkless were All-County picks in 2011.
On the eve of the season curtain-raiser, only Sandifer's health is a major concern. He will not be competing in the Citrus County meet and may not be a factor for at least a month.
According to Milholland, "Will's had knee problems since July. He's always trying to work through it. Right now, he's not even practicing. Why rush him out there when he's not at 100 percent and have him break down again? He's taking some time off now to heal. Hopefully, he'll be able to help us during the stretch run – when it really matters."
On Van Natter, "He's physically much stronger than he's ever been. I'm asking him to lead the team in the same manner as last year," the coach said.
On Ciccone, Milholland said, "Cody's the guy that gets our guys fired up. Kevin's the guy that keeps us running well. He's the guy that keeps us on the right page."
On Murphy, Milholland noted, "Like Cody, Stephen has gotten so much stronger and so much better. Like our core group, he put in a lot of mileage during the summer. In my mind he's already a sub-17:00 guy."
On Harkless, "Had a tremendous first year for us last year. He's come a long way since track. He's very reliable. What I like most? He's a tough competitor," the coach said.
Returning varsity lettermen include: juniors Carlton Blackburn, Nick Deligio and Joe Clark.
Fresh faces to the squad include: frosh Matt Aubertin, Austin Mulyck and Jacob Rockwell; sophomore Kyle Armbruster; and junior Nick Springer.
On who has the greatest chance to impact the starting lineup, Coach Milholland didn't hesitate, saying, "Clark hasn't scratched the surface of his abilities. He ran an 18:11 last year without much of a base. He's put in the time this year. He'll definitely be one of our top six."
On Mulyck, "He's a baseball guy who is trying to catch Van Natter. He has miles and miles of heart. When it's all said and done, I think he'll crack our top five. He may not break out this year, but down the road he'll definitely help us," Milholland said.
As far as the county landscape, "We have enough horses that we should be the team to beat," indicated Milholland. "But we graduate four seniors. To me, the program that is coming up is Springstead."
According to Milholland, this year's team will be successful, "If we break into the top three at states. Our goal is to put four guys under 17 (minutes).
"We have to be adaptable on each of the courses we compete on. We understand that to have success at states we're going to have to go toe-to-toe with teams like Bishop Kenny and Cocoa Beach."
In 2010, Springstead finished as high as sixth twice in seven meets. The Eagles finished a distant 13th out of 17 teams in districts.
Last fall, SHS finished as high as second at Zak Lukas and third in the Hernando-Citrus Distance Classic before suffering a forgettable eighth-place finish, out of nine teams, in the Class 3A, District 6 Meet at McKethan Lake.
Of the seven Eagles in that final race, six have returned, including: seniors Carl Zee, Zack Romblad and Matt Douds-Jensen; juniors James Amodie, Dennis "D.J." Carroll and Jai Jackson.
Zee is the team leader. Zee was the team's fastest thinclad last fall ranking seventh overall in the county in 17:20.45.
He's also a terrific tennis player for the Hernando County champion and district runner-up Eagles under Joe Nicolai.
Third-year Eagle mentor Brandon Wright has a bit of a supporting cast with the transfer of one of Weeki Wachee's finest athletes: junior Jesse Laurenti. Laurenti ranked 12th in last season's final Honor Roll.
Other Eagle team members include: freshmen Jeff Amodie and Joe Toth; sophomores Patrick Deslaurier and Josh Page; juniors Matt Bute, Hank Deslaurier, Will Ebanks and Nate Snyder; and seniors Rogelio Mendez and Bernard Ndedi.
"What I like in Year 3 is I see the program developing," noted Coach Wright. "It's extremely encouraging when you have a bunch of good kids. Essentially, we have everybody back. We lost Kyle (Bugden), but he just decided to stick with soccer."
On Zee, "He might not be the greatest athlete on the course or on the court, but he's the hardest worker out there. He's in great shape. His enthusiasm rubs off on all the other guys," Wright said.
On Laurenti's presence, Wright said, "It's been a seamless transition for him. We're blessed to have a lot of good character guys. And Jesse is one of those type kids. He really wants to work hard. The kid can run forever. He's one of those type kids that found his niche in running."
On the county landscape, "It's silly not to think that Nature Coast doesn't have the team to beat. To me, they're our rabbit – they're the guys we're trying to catch. Our guys take a lot of pride in beating any of their guys to the finish line," Wright said.
"We finished second in the county last year. Hopefully, we can be a little closer to their heels this year."
On the district picture, "We picked the worst day to have a bad meet last year. It was like everything went wrong that day," he recalled. "That was not a true indicator of what we were capable of doing. I think the guys have improved and I don't see any reason why we can't compete and get out of districts.
"We'll have a successful season if we continue on the path we're on," emphasized Coach Wright. "We have a message and a goal. We want to be the best Springstead team in this sport in 20 years."
Hernando High – which served as the county's face of the sport for nearly three decades under Hall of Fame skipper Ernie Chatman – is dealing with its fourth head coach in four years.
The Purple and Gold lost two starters to last year's commencement exercises: Parker Steinkamp and Matt Noark.
Steinkamp is a huge loss. Steinkamp, the team's lone All-County pick, competed in nine meets and posted a personal-record 16:45.00 – good for the county's third-fastest time last fall.
Steinkamp placed 48th in the Class 2A FHSAA Finals in Dade City.
The Leopards return five lettermen from last year's squad that placed third in districts and eighth out of 14 teams in regionals: seniors Brad Geisler and Zach Lewis; juniors Christian Council and Bailey Mosher; and sophomore John Lewis.
Of the returning quintet, Zach Lewis ranked 17th in the final Honor Roll in 18:28.01.
New faces include: seniors Jacob Curtiss, Zachary Gerhards; juniors David Anasky, Augustine Loredo; sophomore Clint Wilkins; freshmen Zachary Dill, Justin McGettigan, Tyler Pantley, Charles Steinkamp and Dylan Wilson.
First-year Leopard mentor David Wilson is a former prep cross-country and track and field athlete from Michigan.
On what he likes so far, "I like our camaraderie. We have a lot of younger runners. What I like most is they'll do anything I ask. I'm still an avid runner; I'm trying to translate what I know to the guys," Wilson said.
On his greatest concern, he added, "There's always a question before your first meet on who rise to the occasion and who will fold. How will they fare after facing some adversity?"
On his approach, "There are teams that have put in a lot of miles. I don't want to overdo it with our guys. I want them to peak at the end of the season, not before.
"I'm looking for our guys to gradually improve," explained Coach Wilson. "Right now, it's too early for me to tell if we can get out of districts. Hopefully, we don't burn out and we peak toward the end."
According to Wilson, Hernando will be successful this season, "If we continue to compete in practice, stay healthy, stay the course with our training and not peak too early."
With Dan O'Rourke's recent departure to Nature Coast, former Shark mentor Tyson Graham has replaced him at Central.
Graham, the 2007 Nature Coast girls cross-country mentor, returned to the area after coaching at Ashford University in Clinton, Iowa. His penchant has been to rebuild programs.
"As long as I remain employed at Central, I'll remain here," stressed Coach Graham.
The Bears are coming off a season where Central finished ninth, out of nine teams, in districts.
Graduation claimed two starters: Zach Hall and Jeremy Rodriguez. Hall was the only Bear thinclad to be ranked in the final Top 10 Honor Roll, in eighth at 17:21.30
The Bears have five returning starters: seniors Robert Archbell and Austin Goins; juniors Austin Gray and Ben Orner; and sophomore Michael Tippett.
New faces include: seniors Matt Rothey and Josh Marquez; juniors Garrett Napolitano, Travis Undestad, Jeff Turncliff, Alvin Chen, Robert Clay and Quinton Washington; sophomores Arthur Khalikov and Trevor Morris; and freshmen Donte Forrester, Tyler Cline, Tyler Gearhart and Vinny Napolitano.
As the season gets underway, Coach Graham's greatest concern is "our experience. We're going to show up and get better. But right now the majority of our returning guys are JV kids – who have no real experience at the varsity level.
"I think Austin (Gray) will be fine. He'll be right up there," added Coach Graham. "And I think Vinny (Napolitano) will open some eyes. Josh (Marquez) should really help us, too."
As far as the county prediction, "I haven't seen what everyone has. I know our kids would love to beat Springstead – that's our big rival," indicated Coach Graham. "I don't know right now if we can compete with teams like Nature Coast. Our goal is to get five guys under 18 (minutes)."
Weeki Wachee's girls tennis coach Elisa Awtrey takes over the reins of the Hornets cross-country team.
Due to lack of numbers, the Hornets failed to produce a team score in any of the six meets they were represented in last fall.
This year, Weeki Wachee is scheduled to compete in seven regular-season meets, beginning with the Lecanto Invitational on Saturday.
According to Coach Awtrey, the Hornets enter the season with four sophomores: Gavin Beck, Marcel Boswell, Ronnie Metcalf and Denton Cannon.
None of the four competed for the Hornets last fall.
"These kids have a good work ethic," admitted Coach Awtrey. "We've been set back by a few injuries. I want to motivate these kids to strive to become the best they can be. They're genuinely hard-workers.
"I don't know the reason for the low numbers," shrugged Awtrey. "But I'm here to help those who are here. We're going to help push them forward."