TAMPA -- He strode to the finish line unchallenged Tuesday evening, yet for the second race in a row, a disclaimer nipped at Brian Sharp's heels.
Three days before, at the Mitchell Invitational at Starkey Park, Sharp's astounding second-place time (15:35) was tainted by accusations of an abbreviated course. Mitchell coach and race director Jeff Leavey essentially denies that (see below).
Then at Tuesday's West Hillsborough Invitational, which Robinson's Sharp won handily (16:22), his ribbon was accompanied by the reality that neither Plant nor Berkeley Prep's varsity runners competed.
"You just go out fast and keep going," Sharp said after Tuesday's triumph at Al Lopez Park. "You can't really think about it too much. All you can do is really go out and try and race your best."
Barring a significant setback, the disclaimers will die soon enough.
A shaggy-haired senior from Southern California, Sharp is shaping up as a bona fide Class 2A state title contender. The promise he brandished last fall (finishing 12th at the 2A meet), and the mileage he logged this past summer, proves it.
"Brian ran a ton of miles over the summer," Knights coach Mark Altimari said. "And they were quality miles. He ran everything 6:40 or faster."
In a 100-day span, from shortly after the conclusion of track season until the start of cross country, Altimari says Sharp ran more than 700 miles. A hearty chunk of that occurred at a camp in the mountainous trails around Appalachian State, where the Knights knocked out 15 a day.
"It was definitely the most entertaining (offseason) because our team really took it to another whole level, taking it to 70 miles a week, going up to North Carolina," Sharp said.
The fruits of that work came to early fruition when Sharp placed 17th in the boys elite race -- and fifth-best among county runners -- on a muddy terrain at the Deja Vu Invitational earlier this month.
And for all the clamor about the course length at Starkey Park, he still finished only two seconds behind Anclote's Argishti Gazari , currently ranked first in 2A according to flrunners.com.
He'll get another solid early-season gauge Saturday against an elite field at the FSU Invitational in Tallahassee.
"(Before last) Saturday's race, I think I was a little bit under the radar," Sharp said. "I know it doesn't count but I think that pushed both (Gazari) and I to the spectrum of who's going to win."
Mitchell coach defends course: In an e-mail to the Times on Wednesday morning, Leavey said the course for the Mitchell Invitational -- which produced some surprisingly brisk times for early September -- was only 11 yards short.
"Four people measured it and no two answers were the same," Leavey wrote. "Unless we find a steel tape 5,000 (meters) long it's right."
Instead, Leavey credited the fleet pace to the weather (76 degrees, no wind) and an easily navigable course conducive to passing. Gazari won the boys race in 15:33. Gulf's Kari Grippo won the girls race (17:24). Both were personal-bests.
Weekend road trips: Plant, Robinson and Sickles will get a significant early-season gauge Saturday morning at the FSU Invitational at Tallahassee's Apalachee Regional Park.
Meantime, in Gainesville, runners from Armwood, Chamberlain and Berkeley Prep will race at the Mountain Dew Invitational on the University of Florida Golf Course. Watch for 3A state title hopeful Max del Monte of Chamberlain, who will run full-bore for the first time this season.
Locally, the Seffner Christian Invitational at Sydney Dover Trails, and W.D. Johnson Invitational at Ruskin's Simmons Park, will be staged Saturday at 8 a.m. Both meets will feature more than a dozen teams.
Foot notes: Another reason reigning 2A boys state runner-up Steinbrenner shapes up as a darkhorse in its first season in 3A -- junior Blake West. A first-year runner who competed in track last season, West was the Warriors' No. 3 finisher at Tuesday's West Hillsborough Invitational. "He put himself up at another level, I felt," Coach Bobby McConnell said. ... In the West Hillsborough boys JV race, Steinbrenner won with a perfect 15-point score.
Boys Honor Roll
1. Travis Christenberry, Plant. Top local finisher in Elite race at Deja Vu Invitational
2. Michael Babinec, Riverview. Coasted to victory at East Hillsborough Invitational
3. Brian Sharp, Robinson. Short course or no, 15:35 is stellar for early September
4. Abdin Fator, Sickles. Won Varsity Open race on muddy course at Deja Vu Invitational
5. Matt Magee, Steinbrenner. Top-10 finish in Elite race at Deja Vu
Girls Honor Roll
1. Kara Halfaker, Plant. Placed fourth in girls Elite race at Deja Vu Invitational
2. Katherine Ralston, Plant. Area's No. 2 finisher at Deja Vu
3. Colleen Doherty, Holy Names. Essentially unchallenged at West Hillsborough Invitational
4. Claire Snyder, Tampa Prep. Ran 18:25 at Mitchell Invitational
5. Julia Rodriguez, Plant. Very well could be Panthers' top finisher at FSU Invitational