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SEFFNER — As light rain falls, Josh Keenan’s angular 6-foot frame periodically materializes as he repeatedly navigates a one-mile loop around Seffner Christian’s sports complex.
There’s Keenan, emerging from behind the gym. There he goes sloshing down a waterlogged edge of the football practice field. Here he comes trudging up a muddy path, his calves slathered with black slop. Watch Keenan long enough, and he’ll surface from everywhere.
Therein lies the irony; some say he has come from nowhere.
In only his second serious year of racing, Keenan has shaped up as a bona fide state medal contender in Class 1A. He reaffirmed that status at last weekend’s FSU Invitational, staged at the site (Apalachee Regional Park) of this year’s state meet.
Racing in the Boys Invitational, Keenan placed fifth in 16:27 -- 13 seconds behind winner Abdin Fator of Sickles. Only a fast first-mile pace, and confusion about the location of the finish line -- on a turn right after an inclined final stretch — prevented a fourth-place effort.
“I came up the hill and passed the finish line,” Keenan said, “and the guy in front of me stopped, and I didn’t even realize the race was over.”
The second-oldest of four kids, Keenan has lived in the U.S., Romania and Canada. The son of a Church of Christ evangelist, he played baseball as a sophomore at Brooks-DeBartolo before arriving at SCA last year.
Until joining the Crusaders cross country team at the behest of a buddy, he had only dabbled in distance running, enjoying modest middle school success without any serious training. By the end of 2011, he had won the 1A, District 8 title and placed 14th at the state meet (16:51).
Then, he ratcheted up his training from diligent to fervent.
Keenan, who takes nine hours of dual-enrollment courses at Hillsborough Community College and technically is considered home-schooled, logged 50-55 miles per week over the summer. The mileage, logged when not working at a landscape company, periodically included personal half-marathons at north Tampa’s Flatwoods Park.
“He’s not really a front-runner,” SCA coach Andy Holmes said. “He’s more of a sit back and let his endurance take over.”
The offseason mileage, combined with Holmes’ speed training, has paid tangible dividends. Keenan won the Seffner Christian Kickoff Classic at Sydney Dover Trails on Sept. 8, and placed second in the small-school boys race at the North Port Invite two weeks later. His time there (16:08.60), a personal-best, would’ve put him in the top 10 in the large-school race.
“I think a lot of my improvement,” he said, “is just dedication to the sport of cross country.”
DEAN OF FRESHMEN: Diminutive Middleton freshman Daniel Dean, whom you may have seen bursting to the front of a handful of races this year, has finished in that position lately.
Dean won Saturday morning’s Don Bishop Invitational at Brandon High in 16:58, the only sub-17-minute time in the modest field. King’s Alejandro Navas (17:04) was second; Riverview’s Justin Waters and Tyler Bonafe placed fifth and sixth, respectively, for the Sharks, who won the boys team title.
On the girls side, King put each of its top five runners in the top 15 — led by freshman winner Sneha Sathish — to capture the girls title. Sathish’s time (20:37) was a personal-best.
Then on Tuesday, Dean won the annual Western Conference Freshman-Sophomore meet, completing the mostly-paved five-kilometer course at Al Lopez Park in 16:41. Sickles sophomore Abby Grant won the girls race (19:53).
RACING AT ‘THE CLAW’: The Armwood Invitational, expected to attract more than two-dozen teams, will be staged Friday evening at the USF Golf Course, affectionately known as “The Claw.” Junior varsity races start at 4:30 p.m., followed by the girls varsity at 5:30 and boys varsity at 6. Parking is limited.
1. Abdin Fator, Sickles. Cemented status as county’s best with a win at FSU Invitational
2. Matt Magee, Steinbrenner. Notched PR (16:05) for top-20 finish in elite race at FSU.
3. Tyler Lima, Steinbrenner. Like Magee, could eclipse 16 minutes down the stretch
4. Tim O’Loughlin, Jesuit. Second to Fator in personal-best 16:16 at FSU.
5. Lars Benner, Newsome. Ran a season-best 16:11 at flrunners.com Invite two weeks ago
1. Julia Rodriguez, Plant. Veteran Panther has eclipsed 18:30 already this season.
2. Brianna Jackson, Newsome. Earned top-20 finish in elite race at FSU Invitational
3. Claire Snyder, Holy Names. Battling a cold lately, but will contend for upcoming county title
4. Caroline Gibson, Plant. Senior was team’s No. 2 finisher in elite race at FSU
5. Anna Montgomery, Plant. Placed four spots behind Gibson in Tallahassee