TAMPA — As warning signs go, the uncharacteristic fatigue Julia Rodriguez felt during the FSU Pre-State Invitational on that early-October Saturday morning was a mild one.
Similarly, the ensuing trip from Tallahassee to Gainesville, virtually all of which the Plant senior spent snoozing in her family’s gray Toyota Prius, didn’t set off a panic alarm.
It wasn’t until the waning afternoon hours, when tensions in the LSU-Florida game reached a knuckle-whitening crescendo, that concern over her condition spiked.
An orange and blue-blood if there ever were one, Rodriguez barely could summon the energy to rise from her 20-yard line seat in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
“I was watching the big screen,” said Rodriguez, who hopes to become the third member of her immediate family to attend UF. “If something big was happening, I’d stand up and scream.”
Two days later, the Panthers’ 2011 region champion was diagnosed with mononucleosis, the viral infection notorious for causing fevers, sore throats, headaches and fatigue — extreme fatigue.
These days, she’s getting herself to bed by 9, abstaining from sweets and willing herself to complete coach Roy Harrison’s speed and hill workouts. To a degree, her body’s still weak.
Her resolve isn’t. “She’s a racer, man,” Harrison said.
Rodriguez, who has finished second at the Hillsborough County Championships, fifth at districts and fourth at regionals since her diagnosis, is seeking a top-10 finish at Saturday’s Class 4A state meet at the same pre-state course in Tallahassee.
“She’s a fighter … and she loves to compete,” said her father, Jorge, who, with wife Ariadne, sought a handful of medical opinions before allowing the second of their three kids to keep running. “She doesn’t like to win, she just hates to lose.”
In a sense, Rodriguez’s condition is a medical microcosm of one of Harrison’s most unlikeliest region title teams ever.
Junior Bailey Sullivan, who placed third at Saturday’s 4A, Region 2 meet, is a diabetic. Finishing ninth was senior Emory Pitisci, a soccer player who didn’t “run a step” with the team over the summer, according to Harrison.
Then there’s Rodriguez, whose defiance of her diagnosis has improved the Panthers’ odds of winning a third consecutive state title.
If she can grimace her way to the second top-10 state finish of her career, which Harrison said is conceivable, the Panthers have a chance to knock off favorite St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale.
“I don’t think I’ll be 100 percent just because of the way I’ve been racing these last three races,” said Rodriguez, who has placed in the top 25 of the past three state meets.
“But hopefully I can run well enough to do (well) because I think if we all run well, we have a really good chance of winning.”
To be sure, a sub-19-minute effort would culminate the most debilitating, excruciating and inspiring month of her prep career.
It’s a month that almost didn’t materialize. The medical feedback Rodriguez’s parents received indicated the body’s responses to mono vary with the person; that it could weaken their daughter moderately or wipe her out completely.
So caution was exercised; on her first hill workout after her diagnosis, Jorge trailed her on a bike. She didn’t run the following weekend, and wasn’t planning to compete in the county meet two weeks later.
But when teammate Scarlett Fox fell ill moments before the start, Rodriguez entered. On a warm morning at Lutz’s Lake Park, she navigated the course of thick grass and gravel-packed dirt in 19:28.10. Had she not misjudged where the finish line was, she might’ve won.
As it stood, she placed second. “Probably one of the worst feelings I’ve felt,” she said.
She has felt a bit better with each race. Harrison estimates she’s 80 percent physically at this point. At dawn Monday, she even joined her teammates in running the rolling hillsides of San Antonio. Now, one final hill awaits Saturday.
“To be honest, we didn’t know what to expect,” Jorge said. “Julia is one tough cookie.”
State cross country
Where: Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee
Schedule: 2A girls – 8 a.m., 3A girls – 8:25, 2A boys – 8:50, 3A boys – 9:15, 4A girls – 9:40, A girls – 10:05, 4A boys – 10:30, A boys – 10:55
Parking: No charge
Local girls team qualifiers: Academy of the Holy Names (2A), Berkeley Prep (2A), Bloomingdale (4A), Newsome (4A), Plant (4A), Robinson (2A), Sickles (3A)
Local boys team qualifiers: Berkeley Prep (2A), Jesuit (2A), Newsome (4A), Plant (4A), Robinson (2A), Seffner Christian (A), Sickles (3A), Steinbrenner (3A)
Local individual girls qualifiers: Sneha Sathish, King (3A); Annie Tedesco, Freedom (4A); Sabrina Whiting, Seffner Christian (A)
Local individual boys qualifiers: Daniel Dean, Middleton (2A); Oscar Skjaerpe, Tampa Prep (A)