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LITHIA — In stern unison, the warning signs — from the lead in his legs to the 91-degree heat to plain logic — implored Lars Benner to stop running on that sweltering day in Lutz two autumns ago.
Fat chance. That was Chicago blood percolating in Benner’s 15-year-old body, calloused by a lifetime of backyard throwdowns with the brawny older brother who played juniors hockey. Resilience would have to trump reason. The kid who never had received a “B’ on a report card would not stand for a “DNF’ on his race tag.
“He doesn’t know an easy day,” Newsome coach Orlando Greene said.
So Benner labored down the grassy final stretch of the Hillsborough County cross country championships, his eyes creeping upward in their sockets. Finally, roughly 15 meters shy of the finish line, Benner collapsed.
Then, he inspired.
“My first instinct was to try to get back up …because the finish line was, like, right there,” Benner recalled earlier this week beneath a gray afternoon sky in Newsome’s courtyard.
“So I tried to get back up and I fell back down again, so I realized I couldn’t even stand up anymore. So I just decided to crawl and try to get to the finish line that way.”
Reaching the line on all fours, Benner placed 12th that day (17 minutes, eight seconds) before being whisked to an aluminum tub of ice water as paramedics were summoned. He was hospitalized a few hours, sustaining no long-term effects.
But he did leave a long-term impression.
“He works hard and he has that ‘it’ factor that a lot of kids don’t have,” said Greene, a member of Seton Hall’s 1973 NCAA indoor champion 1,600-meter relay team. “He’s able to run through pain.”
This fall, opportunity and ornery appear set to converge. The top runners of 2011 — Chamberlain’s Max del Monte, Plant’s Travis Christenberry, Riverview’s Michael Babinec, Robinson’s Brian Sharp — have graduated. Suddenly, Benner, who has earned straight A’s his entire academic life, shapes up as the guy to beat.
Just bring a lunch, and make it carb heavy.
“I’ve just grown to really have a high pain threshold and really just grind out whatever I do, whether it be other sports or running,” said Benner, his Midwest accent thicker than the mozzarella on a deep dish.
“Just the longer as the race goes, just grind it out -- that’s always kind of been my mentality. …I guess my background really has made me tough and willing to work hard and endure that pain.”
If heredity does play a role, Benner, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Chicago, has a head start.
His paternal grandfather, Bill Benner, ran at Illinois State and coached track and cross country at Joliet Junior College. Dad Brent worked his way through college as a roofer and union ironworker. Mom Cindy is from Chicago’s South Side.
Then there’s Leif, one of Lars’ three siblings, who had a stint in juniors hockey and refused to allow his younger brother to be on his team in any sporting endeavor they pursued in their Downers Grove, Ill., neighborhood.
“I remember I was on his team once and it just didn’t feel right,” said Lars, who also dabbled in hockey as a wiry defenseman. “I just remember him always being on the opposing end and him hitting hard and stuff.”
Upon arriving at Newsome, Benner (5-10, 135 pounds) took up cross country as a way to remain in shape for basketball, which he has played for the Wolves the past three years. Quickly becoming enamored with it, he evolved into a district champion and county runnerup in the 3,200 meters by his sophomore year.
Last fall, he placed 13th at the Class 4A state cross country meet with a personal-best time (16:05) and won the inaugural race of his senior year last Saturday on his traditionally slow home course (17:07.94). Greene said Benner has a realistic shot at eclipsing 16 minutes some time this season.
Maturation, moxie and Midwest resolve will be on his side.
“I feel like all my years of working hard has come and I feel like I’ve really prepared myself for this year,” Benner said, “but at the same time I feel like I still have more.”
Boys runners to watch
Lars Benner, Sr., Newsome: Resilient senior was 13th at last season’s Class 4A state meet
Josh Keenan, Sr., Seffner Christian: Won his school’s kickoff meet Saturday on sandy trails course
Tyler Lima, Sr., Steinbrenner: This top-10 region finisher, along with twin Zach, lead loaded Warriors lineup
Matt Magee, Sr., Steinbrenner: Warriors’ top finisher (37th) at 3A meet in 2011
Justin Martinez, Sr., Newsome: Top-30 state placer gives Wolves formidable 1-2 punch up front
Tim O’Loughlin, Jr., Jesuit: Top-20 finisher at 2A state meet
Bryce Weaver, Sr., Plant: Panthers’ top returning state finisher was 64th at 4A meet
Top three boys teams
1. Plant: The Panthers graduated their top four runners, which only means coach Mike Boza gets to brandish the depth he has spent the past half-decade building. Bryce Weaver, the team’s No. 5 finisher at state last year, leads the top five runners — all of whom are seniors.
2. Steinbrenner: The top five runners from the 2011 squad, which finished 12th at the Class 3A meet, are back. Coach Bobby McConnell loves the commitment of this group; some cut their vacations short to make sure they were practicing together this summer.
3. Jesuit: A potential top-five team in Class 2A. Junior Tim O’Loughlin, a top-20 finisher at state last year, likely will be pushed all season by sophomore Hunter Revord. And there’s plenty of depth behind those two.
In the conversation: Berkeley Prep, Newsome
Girls runners to watch
Julia DeYoung, Sr., Robinson: Top-25 state placer “running out of her mind’ right now, coach says
Colleen Doherty, So., Holy Names: Jags’ “veteran’ placed fifth at last season’s 2A state meet
Scarlett Fox, Sr., Plant: Finished sixth in sub-19-minute time at last season’s 4A state meet
Brianna Jackson, Sr., Newsome: 2009 county champ won her school’s season-opening meet Saturday
Julia Rodriguez, Sr., Plant: Defending region champ can be area’s best runner on a given day
Claire Snyder, Jr., AHN: Tampa Prep transfer is reigning Hillsborough County champion
Sabrina Whiting, Jr., Seffner Christian: Top-20 finisher at last year’s Class A meet
Top three girls teams
1. Plant: The two-time defending Class 4A state champions remain the area’s best team — by a 10K. Five of the Panthers’ top seven finishers at last season’s state meet return, though sophomore Erica Oosterhout (28th at state in 2011) is recovering from offseason knee surgery. Adding depth is junior Emory Pitisci, a member of last spring’s state runnerup 4x800-meter relay team.
2. Academy of the Holy Names: The arrival of Claire Snyder — the Times’ reigning county runner of the year — from Tampa Prep to push returning state medalist Colleen Doherty gives the Jaguars a formidable 1-2 punch, and a real crack at a top-10 team finish at state.
3. Freedom: The Patriots graduated No. 1 runner Ashley Smith, but the other four top finishers at last season’s Class 4A meet — where Freedom placed 14th — were underclassmen.
In the conversation: Newsome, Robinson, Wharton