TAMPA — The statements were bold and resounding, as undeniable as the humidity. They were documented by a timekeeper instead of a tape recorder, arriving within a minute of each other at Thursday’s Hillsborough County championships.
The first was made by Durant senior Grace VanDeGrift, reinforcing her status as the county’s premier female runner with a winning time of 18:58.37.
The second was made by the seven runners who immediately followed her, reinforcing the fact that, collectively, the county’s girls are running faster than they have been in several seasons.
On a day of record-setting heat in Tampa, all seven crossed the finish in under 20 minutes. In this same race, on the same course, on the same weekend in 2009, only three girls eclipsed the 20-minute mark. None came close to breaking 19.
“We were just talking about that,” said Plant sophomore Caroline Gibson, among at least three Panthers who have taken a turn as the team’s No. 1 runner this year. “We were running consistently last year what our No. 5 is running now.”
It’s a trend that has manifested itself in crisp air and crippling heat, in city parks and sprawling horse ranches, in September and October. At every site, in every weather condition, girls are running at a breakneck clip compared to recent seasons.
At the recent Pre-State Invitational at Little Everglades, annual site of the state championships, three county girls — VanDeGrift, Gibson and Academy of the Holy Names eighth-grader Colleen Dohery — broke 19 minutes.
In the previous three state meets, no county female runner eclipsed 19.
At several in-county regular season meets — including the Millard Shumate Invitational on Picnic Island, Don Bishop Invitational at Brandon and Ryan McCall Invitational at Strawberry Crest — the winning 2010 time was considerably faster than last year’s.
“I think a lot of the girls are training more miles than they have in the (recent) past,” said Plant coach Roy Harrison, winner of seven state titles. “A long time ago they trained a lot, and then they slacked off and the times got worse. Now it’s getting better again. There’s more depth.”
Seffner Christian coach Andy Holmes agrees, but adds another theory: age.
“The coaching and training are definite reasons, but I think you also see that of the top runners in the county, the majority are underclassmen,” said Holmes, who watched Crusaders freshman Sabrina Whiting place fifth (19:53.12) on Thursday.
“I think you are seeing more girls involved in running before they get to high school. A lot of them do running clubs or middle school track. …The younger runners run better also if their bodies have not fully developed. That is my take.”
Supporting his theory: six of the top 10 finishers at the county meet were sophomores or younger. That, of course, doesn’t explain the breakthrough season being staged by VanDeGrift, who was competing for Lebanon (Ohio) High this time last year.
VanDeGrift, who moved back to Durant after the ’09 cross country season, attributes her improvement to the core exercises and weight training with which she supplements her running, as well as an increased emphasis on nutrition.
It’s a hard-work approach she suggests is becoming more prevalent.
“I think everybody’s just working hard this year,” she said. “I don’t know what it is, it’s just everybody has a really good work ethic this year and I’m proud I come from this county.”
Where: West Orange High, Winter Garden
When: Saturday (girls at 9 a.m., boys at 9:30)
Local teams: Bloomingdale, Brandon, Newsome, Plant City
Where: McIntosh Middle School, Sarasota
When: Saturday (girls at 8:30 a.m., boys at 9:10)
Local teams: Alonso, Chamberlain, Freedom, Gaither, Plant, Riverview, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
Where: Polk State Park, Winter Haven
When: Thursday, 4:30 p.m.
Local teams: Armwood, Blake, Durant, East Bay, Hillsborough, King, Leto, Sickles
Where: Al Lopez Park
When: Thursday (girls at 4 p.m., boys at 4:40)
Local teams: Berkeley Prep, Steinbrenner, Academy of the Holy Names, Jesuit, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, Strawberry Crest, Spoto, Tampa Catholic
Where: Taylor Park, St. Petersburg
When: Thursday (girls at 9:15 a.m., boys at 10)
Local teams: Bayshore Christian, Cambridge Christian, Carrollwood Day, Seffner Christian, Tampa Bay Christian, Tampa Prep