TAMPA — Six times per afternoon, Amber Brooks runs the same makeshift course on Middleton’s campus.
An errant throw from the football practice field poses a constant potential hazard. There are crevices hidden among the high grass near the fence line. A retention pond’s steep bank lurks to her left.
“I’m just scared I’m gonna fall where (the bank is), so I run real close to the fence,” says Brooks, a Riverview resident who has run track competitively since age 6. “I don’t want to break anything.”
A half-dozen laps around this enclosed eyesore, and Brooks has a workout of roughly 4 miles. Humidity and monotony are constant training partners. Another Tigers female runner or two are occasional ones. Typically, she just runs with the boys.
And beats most of them.
Out of this improbable, inner-city setting, a state qualifier sprouted last year. An 800-meter track star by trade, Brooks took a crack at cross country as a junior and progressed well enough to place seventh at the Class 2A, Region 3 meet and 40th at the state meet a week later.
Her state effort — 20 minutes, 3.87 seconds — was a personal best, motivating Brooks to return for her senior season at a landlocked school where course options are minimal at best.
Whereas South Tampa schools (Plant, Academy of the Holy Names) have Bayshore Boulevard nearby, Jesuit has Al Lopez Park next door, and others are situated near popular jogging trails or county parks, Brooks and Co. have learned to conform with what their campus offers.
“A course this small, though, is good for power training,” Tigers volunteer coach Daniel Dean said. “We don’t have the fancy courses like Plant and Wharton. I think that’s what surprised people even with our cross country last year, too, with the boys, because we don’t have an extended course. Here, you get to watch them.”
What Dean has watched is a sinewy 5-foot-7, 112-pound middle-distance track star (Brooks was sixth in the 800 at last spring’s 2A state meet) who has evolved from novice to 19-minute runner in her fall sport. Dean says training with boys gives Brooks an advantage.
Not that she has much choice.
“Now I’m trying to get girls to run,” Brooks says, “but they don’t want to run cross country.”
Preseason top five
1. Plant: Area’s best team, by a 5K. Everyone’s back from a squad that placed fifth in last year’s 4A meet.
2. Wharton: Reigning county runner of the year Abby Ritter leads another solid Wildcats team
3. Holy Names: Loss of No. 1 runner Cristina Snyder hurts, but Jags still deep and promising
4. King: Coach Gary Bingham returns four of his top five from a district runnerup team
5. Newsome: Reigning county champ Brianna Jackson returns, but Wolves rebuilding elsewhere
Five runners to watch
Caroline Gibson, So., Plant: Defending district champ won a region 3,200-meter title in spring
Sarah Hartman, So., Sickles: Won a 3A district title and placed second at regionals as freshman
Brianna Jackson, So., Newsome: Midwest transplant won county meet her rookie season
Abby Ritter, Sr., Wharton: Posted best time of any local girl (19:07.02) at ’09 state meet
Julia Rodriguez, So., Plant: Was Panthers’ top runner at region and state meets