TAMPA — In a begrudging concession to age, Plant girls coach Roy Harrison will monitor at least a portion of his team’s training runs this week from atop his bike, pedaling and prodding concurrently.
He’ll assess each of the Panthers’ nuances, from body language to breathing, tapering the workouts as Saturday’s state meet nears.
On the eve of the race, he’ll assemble his team at someone’s home for pasta and an inspirational movie (probably Prefontaine).
If he’s like many coaches, Harrison then will spend his sleeping hours visualizing the race. When Saturday dawns, he’ll assess the slopes and straightaways at Dade City’s Little Everglades Ranch, ponder the wind speed and study how each of his kids warms up.
But even then, after all the study and scrutiny, he still won’t be able to tell you which Panther will cross the finish first.
“It’s never, ever been that way,” said Harrison, who seeks his ninth team state title Saturday. “Usually I could pick pretty close the order they finish and I can’t do that. Every race I’ve been wrong.”
In Friday morning’s Class 4A, Region 2 meet in Lutz, it was resurgent sophomore Julia Rodriguez pacing the Panthers (third, 18:47.30). Six days before, at the District 4 meet in Sarasota, it was junior Danielle Kissel (third, 19:49.06).
At last month’s Pre-State Invitational, also held at Little Everglades, it was sophomore Caroline Gibson (25th, 18:59.58).
“I’ve always had a clear favorite at the No. 1,” said Harrison, who has coached four individual state champs (including four-time champion Caroline Annis). “Other girls have switched around but not the No. 1.”
It might rank as the darnedest dilemma Harrison has encountered in 29 years at Plant, one that inspires hope and hair pulling.
On the positive side, the fluctuation atop the Panthers’ lineup tells Harrison, whose team won its district and region, he has great depth and a promising future. None of his top five runners are seniors.
On the downside, it tells him his kids don’t respond well if they get passed by a teammate, which could cost Plant dearly Saturday.
“They don’t mind because they’re friends,” Harrison said. “It’s just hard for them mentally.”
Rodriguez, also the team’s top runner at the end of the 2009 season, concurs.
“I could say I’m all right with it and try to catch up with them,” she said, “but it does affect us and we’re working on it.”
Fortunately for Harrison, the mental lapses haven’t completely taken any of his top runners out of a race. At the district meet, only six seconds separated Plant’s top finisher (Kissel) from its No. 5 (sophomore Katherine Ralston). At regionals, the difference was 53 seconds.
Harrison projects the gap will have to be 20-30 seconds if the Panthers hope to topple Region 4 champ Miami Lourdes, which has defeated them in three meetings this season. With that in mind, Harrison will send his runners to the starting line with some simple directives:
Don’t be overwhelmed if Lourdes comes out like a rocket. Be aggressive, but hold back a little at the outset. And by all means, stay strong mentally.
If the Panthers oblige, it may not matter who crosses first. More than likely, they’ll all be No. 1 — for the ninth time in school history.
“If a teammate passes me on Saturday I will just focus as hard as I can on catching them,” Rodriguez said. “It’s like Coach tells us, they may be running the best race of their career so don’t break down because you never know how good they’re running.”
When/where: Saturday, Little Everglades Ranch, Dade City
Schedule: 4A girls, 7:30; A girls, 7:55; 4A boys, 8:20; A boys, 8:45; 2A girls, 9:05; 3A girls, 9:30; 2A boys, 9:55; 3A boys, 10:20
Admission: $8 (children 6 and younger are free)
Parking: $7 per vehicle
4A girl qualifiers: Plant; 4A boys: Plant, Newsome; 3A girls: King; 3A boys: Sickles; 2A girls: Academy of the Holy Names, Steinbrenner, Berkeley Prep; 2A boys: Berkeley Prep, Jesuit, Steinbrenner; A boys: Tampa Prep
Individual qualifiers: 4A girls: Abby Ritter, Wharton; 4A boys: Max del Monte, Chamberlain; Jake Covington, Chamberlain; 3A girls: Grace VanDeGrift, Durant; Amber Duncan, Armwood; Katherine Lutton, Hillsborough; Sarah Hartman, Sickles; 3A boys: Michael Eidge, Durant; Brandon Duncan, Armwood; Olen Dalton, East Bay; Fabian Woodard, Hillsborough; Jonathon Bermudez, Sickles; 2A girls: Trixi Menge, Strawberry Crest; Julia DeYoung, Robinson; 2A boys: Brian Sharp, Robinson; A girls: Sabrina Whiting, Seffner Christian; Claire Snyder, Tampa Prep