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TAMPA — The brakes on Roy Harrison’s 20-year-old white Butte Giant bike are nearly shot. Because sudden stops are out of the question, the uber-successful Plant girls cross country coach keeps his distance when monitoring the Panthers’ training runs.
“It takes about 30 yards to stop it,” says the New York native, whose Queens accent barely has dissipated after nearly 40 years in Florida. “And that’s squeezing on the brakes as hard as I can.”
If you’re looking for any sign Harrison’s program is skidding, this is the only one. In November, he guided Plant to a state-record ninth girls team state title, and this fall returns all five scorers — and then some — from that squad. Granted, Harrison’s got a little tread on his 55-year-old frame (including a scar from recent knee surgery), and some things in the current prep sports landscape really yank at his chain, but he still pedals on.
Set to embark on his 30th season as Plant coach, Harrison obliged to a brief Q&A, where he discussed the evolution, rewards and annoyances of his longtime gig.
What’s the biggest change in your sport during those 30 years?
I think that my top girls are way more dedicated than back then. I would get them running but I never really had them running all year. I’d get them in track a little bit; I wasn’t doing the track at Plant so it was hard. But I think the top ones are more dedicated.
But, on the downside, club soccer has killed us. I mean, it just has totally ruined distance female runners in this country. That’s where all the great runners are. They’re all playing soccer and you can’t fight it because they start when they’re little.
With all the headaches your job entails (parents, conflicts with club sports, etc.), what keeps you going?
Most of the time I have fun working with the girls and watching them improve. The new ones will improve from 32 minutes down to 25 or 26 in one season. These are the type of girls that I will see 20 years from now still running out on Bayshore (Boulevard). I see girls that I coached 20 to 30 years ago still running out there and they always say thank you for getting them started.
Is it safe to assume Caroline Annis (a four-time individual state champ) is the best runner you’ve coached?
Yeah, she still has the records. There’s been a lot of good ones, but that probably stands alone right now.
Who’s your best team?
’97 still has the best team average (18:59). …Last year’s team was more balanced I’d say than ever. That (’97) team average was that fast because Caroline (Annis) was running like 17:50. This team last year was probably the most balanced top five I’ve had.
What’s your personal greatest running feat?
Probably running a 2:44 marathon (about a 6:15 per-mile pace) for 26 miles with no specific training plan for it. I did it in the old Orange Bowl Marathon and never did any real hard training for it except put in a lot of mileage and no interval training.
Three teams to watch
1. Plant: Senior-heavy Panthers are strongest team of coach Mike Boza’s half-decade tenure.
2. Chamberlain: Chiefs possess more depth behind Max del Monte than most realize.
3. Steinbrenner: Most pundits are giving last year’s 2A runnerup zero love. Not smart.
1. Plant: Everyone’s back from a state title team that may have been Roy Harrison’s most balanced ever.
2. Academy of the Holy Names: Jags are scary good up top, but depth could be a big issue.
3. Steinbrenner: Led by junior Lauren Garris, this deep lineup still could be a year away.
Runners to watch (in alphabetical order)
Michael Babinec, Sr., Riverview: East side’s top runner should regularly eclipse 16:00
Lars Benner, Jr., Newsome: Should push Babinec for east Hillsborough supremacy
Travis Christenberry, Sr., Plant: Notched a top-20 finish at state as a junior
Max del Monte, Sr., Chamberlain: Could be county’s first boys state champ since 2003
Brian Sharp, Sr., Robinson: Ran a personal best (16:20.18) at 2010 2A meet to finish 12th
Colleen Doherty, Fr., Holy Names: As an eighth-grader, eclipsed 19:00 to finish ninth at state
Caroline Gibson, Jr., Plant: Ninth at 4A state meet last season with valiant late kick
Danielle Kissel, Sr., Plant: Top-four region finisher has an 18:53 PR
Julia Rodriguez, Jr., Plant: Panthers’ top runner might start modestly after nursing shin splints
Sabrina Whiting, So., Seffner Chr: State qualifier nearly eclipsed 19:00 as a freshman
Are you ready for some foot races?
The local prep cross country season begins in earnest Friday night with the Deja Vu Invitational at Ed Radice Park. The event, which will feature several dozen teams including five state title squads (three boys, two girls) from last season, includes six races starting at 7 p.m. In deference to history, each race will be 3 miles, the distance of prep races when Ed Radice hosted the state meet a decade ago.