PLANT CITY -- These days, Grace VanDeGrift's mailing address is more permanent, her right hip less painful. A year after the most discombobulating autumn of her life, the Durant senior is a blond, blue-eyed symbol of stability.
"I'm home, I know where I'm going to go to school," VanDeGrift, seated beneath a sprawling white tent at the Cougars' football stadium, said Thursday afternoon. "I've stopped moving around. I'm not hurt, everything's going fine."
A glowing testament to that upbeat assertion came Saturday morning in Titusville.
In brilliantly crisp weather on a lakefront course, VanDeGrift ran the fastest five-kilometer race of her life (18:13.02) to place eighth in the prestigious Girls Race of Champions at the flrunners.com Invitational 11.
Just like that, the honors student with the 5.2 weighted GPA sprinted into the Class 3A state title conversation.
"She's very fit, very healthy and now living up to her potential," Cougars coach Mike Gursky said.
A year ago, she was living out of boxes -- or so it seemed. Her dad's job change forced the VanDeGrift family, which includes two younger siblings, to move to Lebanon, Ohio, days before the start of Grace's junior year.
She performed solidly for Lebanon High -- her dad's alma mater -- and ultimately qualified for the Division I (Ohio's smallest classification) state meet. Another job transfer, however, had the family back in east Hillsborough -- and Grace back at Durant -- by the end of the semester.
"It was cool to come back and see all my old friends. It was also difficult to make the transition twice in a year," Grace said.
"I was like a new kid at my old school, so it was a weird situation because it was just so abrupt, especially during your junior year of high school. It was a lot of stress."
It was nothing compared to the stress simultaneously being waged on her hip. Ultimately, a fracture was discovered. According to Grace, doctors said she was two more weeks of hard running from a serious break.
"(Her gait) didn't look too bad," said her brother, Trey, the freshman starting quarterback at Strawberry Crest, "but if you asked her you could tell it was bothering her."
Rest was followed by a riveting track season; Grace recovered in time to finish fifth in the 1,600 meters and ninth in the 3,200 at the 3A state track meet in May. She followed that performance with what she considers her best summer of training ever.
It included a prudently-monitored amount of mileage on her legs. And none on a moving van.
"I've been healthy for like, the first time," Grace said, "so I've really been dedicated because this is my senior year and I want to do my best."
Great day for Picnic: Another crisp, race-friendly morning is forecast for Saturday’s Millard Schumate Invitational at Port Tampa’s Picnic Island. A solid local field for the 8 a.m. race is expected, though several area standouts -- VanDeGrift, Chamberlain's Max del Monte and Jake Covington, and most of Plant's top boys -- will be absent for various reasons.
Odds and ends: Academy of the Holy Names and Plant earned top-five nods in the latest FACA girls team rankings. The Jaguars are fifth in Class 2A; Plant is second in 4A. ... Overshadowed by the litany of personal-best efforts at last week’s flrunners.com Invitational 11 was a team victory by Bloomingdale in the Boys Varsity Open race. Senior Paul Pandl led the Bulls with a fifth-place finish (17:21.76); sophomore Kelvin Alexander was 10th (17:36.94).
Boys Top Five
1. Max del Monte, Chamberlain
Entrenched as area’s best after nearly eclipsing 15-minute mark at flrunners.com Invitational
2. Jake Covington, Chamberlain
Ran a personal-best (15:51.20) in del Monte’s wake at flrunners.com Invitational
3. Bo Nalsen, Plant
Also notched a PR (15:52.52) to finish just behind Covington in Titusville
4. Blake Lopez, Jesuit
Fourth and final county runner to break 16-minute barrier last weekend in Titusville
5. Michael Babinec, Riverview
Won Don Bishop Invitational (16:18.88) last weekend for second triumph of the season
Girls Top Five
1. Grace VanDeGrift, Durant
Cougars senior has emerged as a bona fide Class 3A state title contender
2. Caroline Gibson, Plant
Reigning district champ ran a personal-best (19:03.77) at flrunners.com Invitational
3. Julia Rodriguez, Plant
Missed flrunners.com Invitational due to a prior family commitment
4. Colleen Doherty, Academy of the Holy Names
Second in Girls Large School Varsity race (19:32) at flrunners.com Invitational
5. Amber Brooks, Middleton
Ran off-course at outset and still coasted to Don Bishop Invitational crown (19:25)