TAMPA — As dusk descends in Northdale, the genetic peculiarity that is the Steinbrenner boys cross country team jogs down a neighborhood sidewalk in unison.
Aside from 6-foot-2 senior Alex Newby, set apart by his height and Beatles-style bangs, this assemblage is a veritable twins formation. Seniors Matt and Dan Sarver are practically identical aside from Matt’s braces, while sophomores Zach and Tyler Lima aren’t much easier to tell apart.
Toss in the fact sophomore Chris Cerreta is a dead ringer for the Lima brothers — “We call them the triplets,” Newby says — and, well, good thing the Warriors’ jerseys have numbers.
How ironic then that the set of local runners everyone struggles to sort out is growing more distinct and recognizable by the week.
In only their second year of existence, the Warriors are district champions, having outrun established programs Jesuit, Berkeley Prep and Robinson at last week’s 2A-5 meet. Now, they appear set to make even more noise at Friday’s Region 3 meet — widely considered the toughest of the 2A regions.
“If you had asked me at the beginning of the season if I thought we had a shot at winning districts, I probably would’ve told you no,” said coach Bobby McConnell, a standout on Leto’s 1995 state title team and member of the Falcons’ state championship 4x800-meter relay squads in 1995 and ’96.
“If you had asked me a week ago I probably would’ve told you no. At the beginning of the season I thought a good goal for us would be to make it to state. And now I think we’re a legitimate top-five contender if we run well.”
McConnell has no doubt they’ll run hard. While McConnell’s resume and his nationally revered tandem of assistants clearly have played huge roles in Steinbrenner’s breakneck rise to local prominence, the fundamental key, McConnell insists, is work ethic.
“One of the things we really try to teach out here is, the only way you’re going to get better is to work hard,” said McConnell, whose runners logged 500 miles from the end of the 2009-10 school year to their first race of September.
“They’re now starting to see that all this hard work they’ve done, working hard over the summer, having a successful track season, is now producing results. And it’s just amazing to me, really, how far these guys have come in such a short period of time.”
Guiding them has been arguably the state’s most respected coaching assemblage.
It starts with McConnell, 32, who ran for nationally respected track coach Mike “Mouse” Holloway at the University of Florida,
Attending races (and typically one practice a week) are former Leto coach Bobby Ennis — architect of the Falcons’ fabled “Long Red Row” — and former Largo coaching icon Brent Haley. Together, the pair won 17 state cross country titles between 1970 and ’95.
“I’d put them up against any two people in the state,” McConnell said. “A lot of the workouts I set up now are the same things Largo and Leto used in the past. It’s what I learned and what I know.”
With Ennis and Haley lending a hand, McConnell has established a training schedule geared more toward strength than speed. Tempo runs (maintaining a hard pace for a sustained period) are run on grass when possible. Once every 10 days or so, the Warriors are required to knock out 5 miles in a half-hour.
“Everything we did in high school was geared toward strength,” McConnell said. “We didn’t do a lot of 10x440 (yard) runs or anything like that. … That’s what our foundation is mostly, strength.”
The result: At last week’s district meet, on a rain-drenched grass course at Al Lopez Park, Newby placed third overall (16:32.84) as the Warriors placed five runners in the top 15. Three of those five — Dan Sarver and the Lima twins — had personal-best efforts.
The year before, when Steinbrenner placed sixth, no Warriors runner cracked the top 15.
“A lot more work this year,” Newby said of the Warriors’ sudden ascent. “A lot harder workouts; everything’s just harder. It’s worth it.”
(Admission $6 at all sites)
Where: Lake Park, Lutz
When: Friday (girls – 9 a.m.; boys – 9:30 a.m.)
Local qualifiers: Girls teams – Bloomingdale, Freedom, Newsome, Plant, Wharton; Boys teams – Bloomingdale, Chamberlain, Freedom, Newsome, Plant
Where: Starkey Park, New Port Richey
When: Saturday (girls – 8 a.m.; boys – 8:40 a.m.)
Local qualifiers: Girls teams – Durant, Hillsborough, King, Sickles; Boys teams – Armwood, Durant, East Bay, Sickles; Girls individuals – Amber Duncan, Armwood; Boys individuals – Alejandro Navas, King
Where: Estero Community Park, Estero
When: Friday (girls – 7:30 a.m.; boys – 8:10 a.m.)
Local qualifiers: Girls teams – Academy of the Holy Names, Berkeley Prep, Steinbrenner, Strawberry Crest; Girls individuals – Amber Brooks, Middleton; Julia DeYoung, Robinson; Boys teams – Berkeley Prep, Jesuit, Lennard, Robinson, Steinbrenner; Boys individuals – Arthur Casey, Middleton
Where: Estero Community Park, Estero
When: Friday (girls – 8:40 a.m.; boys – 9:20 a.m.)
Local qualifiers: Girls teams – Tampa Prep; Girls – Sabrina Whiting, Seffner Chr.; Boys teams – Tampa Prep; Boys individuals – Robbie Fearnow, Seffner Chr.