ST. PETERSBURG — Alex Eaton spent her summer days outside, where she launched into carefully conceived workouts, mixing long and short distances that covered flat surfaces and hills.
Some days the Shorecrest senior went 13 miles, some 6, as she ran through the winding streets in her neighborhood or along trails. She trained for speed on her high school track and for hills on the Bay Way Bridge.
Joe Burgasser, coach of the Forerunners Track Club, has been the guiding hand in charge of Eaton’s speedy feet. He was the steward of the clock and calendar, devising workouts to maximize her potential.
After logging more than 60 miles per week, Eaton hopes the time invested in becoming a faster runner pays off with personal records and state titles, both of which appear attainable.
Eaton, who finished third at last year’s state meet, is ranked No. 2 in Class A by flrunners.com.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself,” Eaton said. “My biggest goal is to break 18 minutes. Of course, I want to win a state title. But I’m focusing on my time more than anything else.”
If Eaton can run a sub-18-minute race at states, she’ll have a chance to win considering last year’s champion, Melbourne Holy Trinity’s Julie Wollrath, ran 18:35.
In nearly every race, Eaton will be the overwhelming favorite. With no one to push her, she’ll have to invent new challenges to keep herself going. Already, she is running with some of Shorecrest’s boys in practice.
Though she will pile up victories with ease, Eaton is equally adamant that the wins mean little compared with what she sees as the big picture: a state team title.
The Chargers are in contention for that, too.
Shorecrest returns its top seven runners from last year’s team that finished third at state. Besides Eaton, the Chargers have two other runners, Olivia Rovin (16th) and Kai Greenlees (28th) who finished in the top 30.
Shorecrest’s lineup also got a boost with the addition of Sophia Vesely, a sixth-grader who already has won 1,500-meter races in her age group.
“Sophia is our hidden gem,” Eaton said. “She’s really good and could move into our top three.”
The Chargers are so deep they can afford the loss of seventh-grader Reagan Quilty, a standout triathlete who planned to join the team before injuring her hip this past month.
Those numbers are a big reason Shorecrest enters the season No. 2 in flrunners’ Class A team rankings.
“These things come in cycles, but we’re real fortunate to have this many strong runners here at the same time,” Chargers coach Jeff Raab said. “They all worked hard in the offseason, and they work in helping each other, too.”
Raab knows there are a number of things that could derail Shorecrest’s championship hopes: injury, illness, an upset. Any little thing could cause a team to lose.
Eaton has battled injuries before. She missed track season in the spring because of tendinitis. By June, she was back stronger, focused and injury-free.
“My injury last season was just an unlucky break, part of the wear and tear of running,” Eaton said. “I wanted to come back completely healthy, and I’ve been working really hard ever since. So has everyone else on the team. We should do really well.”
Key story lines
Crowded at the top: Based on the runners returning, Palm Harbor University and Seminole are the favorites to win the Pinellas County Athletic Conference title. The defending champion Hurricanes return their top two runners — Brianna Paczynski and Sarah Raymond — while the Warhawks have a deep lineup led by Olivia Suski. But don’t rule out Northeast or Boca Ciega — both did well at last week’s Pirate Invitational — or Osceola.
Private school power: Shorecrest has the dominant team, but there are few individuals from other private school teams in Pinellas County who could do well, such as Calvary Christian’s Hannah Brookover and Indian Rocks Christian’s Bobbi LaBrant, both of whom had top 30 finishes at last year’s state meet.
Quarter-century and counting: Plant’s quest for a 27th consecutive team state finals berth will hinge on how effectively it rebuilds. Seniors Anna Montgomery and Bailey Sullivan, top-25 finishers at last year’s 4A meet, are the only experienced varsity runners, Coach Roy Harrison says.
Three-peat? Academy of the Holy Names senior Claire Snyder will pursue a third consecutive Hillsborough County championship this season, and lead a deep Jaguars team. Coach Ray Rodriguez says junior standout Colleen Doherty, injured most of last season, is healthy again.
More intriguing runners/teams
Kari Grippo, Gulf: She won a district championship as a junior and has established herself as one of Pasco County’s top runners. Grippo also finished 34th at state last fall.
Land O’Lakes: The Gators started the 2013 season by finishing second (varsity open race) at the Holloway Park Jamboree in Lakeland. It was their first trophy in at least two years. Freshman Izzie Brown and sophomore Esther Abramova will be two of Pasco County’s top newcomers.
Mitchell: The Mustangs graduated twins Elaina and Claudia Cancello but have two more seasons with Emily Kerns, who finished fourth in the conference meet last fall and took 10th in the mile at state.
Nature Coast: The Sharks return almost all of their top runners from last year’s district championship squad. That includes sophomores Alexa Lacy and Summer March and seniors Crystal Burchhardt and Mary Thomson — all of whom placed in the top seven at districts.
Tiana Newton, Springstead: She was one of Hernando County’s top runners last fall and had a solid top-20 showing at the district meet. She could have a strong junior season.
Robinson: Apparently, the planets have aligned in Port Tampa. Robinson, which never has won a district crown, was moved from a daunting 2A district to a winnable 3A-9 during the FHSAA’s biannual reclassification. What’s more, the top five runners return from a squad that placed ninth at last fall’s 2A state meet. “(The district) is absolutely our goal,” Coach Mark Altimari said.
Wiregrass Ranch: The Bulls will try to rebuild without star Nikita Shah. Look for Elise Cedre, Kerry Reilly and Addie Cornwell to step into the spotlight for a team that should again be one of the best in the North Suncoast.
Wednesday: Green Devil Invitational at Crescent Lake Park
Thursday: Indian Rocks Invitational
Saturday: Lecanto Panther Invitational
Saturday: Newsome Wolves Invitational
Sept. 12: Cougar Invitational at Chesnut Park
Sept. 14: Anclote Sharks Invitational
Sept. 14: Mountain Dew Invitational at the University of Florida
Sept. 19: Viking Invitational at Crescent Lake
Sept. 21: Mitchell Invitational
Sept. 26: Eagle Lake Park meet (all Pinellas County public schools, Nature Coast)
Sept. 27-28: flrunners.com Invitational 14, Titusville
Sept. 28: River Ridge Invitational
Sept. 28: Seffner Christian Invitational
Oct. 3: Pirate Invitational at Walter Fuller Park
Oct. 3: Palm Harbor Invitational
Oct. 5: Don Bishop Invitational
Oct. 10: St. Pete City Championship at Crescent Lake
Oct. 11-12: Florida State Invitational (pre-state meet)
Oct. 12: SAC meet at Wiregrass Ranch (Pasco County public schools)
Oct. 12: Millard Schumate Invitational
Oct. 17: PCAC meet at Taylor Park (all Pinellas County public schools)
Oct. 21-26: District meets
Oct. 31-Nov. 2: Region meets
Nov. 9: State meet at Apalachee Regional Park
Compiled by staff writers Matt Baker, Joey Knight and Bob Putnam.