TAMPA — Fittingly enough, Arthur Casey and Franck Charles will have to climb a medal stand should they cap their improbable prep careers with state titles Saturday.
Why, after all, should the final steps be any less vertical than the previous ones, which have been mostly uphill? Only three springs ago, you were more likely to find a Blake High bumper sticker in the Middleton parking lot than Casey or Charles in a distance race.
Casey didn’t have the grades. Charles didn’t have the gumption.
“I came out there for one week (as a freshman),” said Charles, who was born in Haiti. “I said, 'It’s too hot. I quit.’ ”
Saturday, the early-evening sun no longer will represent a heat lamp. For both, it could be a spotlight. The two enter the Class 2A state meet as reigning county, district and region champions in their respective specialty events. Charles (5-6, 125 pounds) is seeded first in the 1,600 meters; Casey (5-8, 125) is fourth in the 800.
Credit distance coach Daniel Dean and head coach Joe Dixon with providing the initial illumination. As recently as 2008, Middleton essentially had no viable distance program; no Tigers runner even competed in the Class 2A, District 5 cross country meet that fall.
Charles, who lives with a single mom and serves as a surrogate dad to three younger siblings, was running with what he acknowledged as a “rough” crowd, and playing hoops at the HOPE Center, a spiritually-based community center across the street from Middleton.
Dean, who owns the center, started volunteering to help Dixon around that time. At a track meet in spring 2009, he recognized Charles, who by then had reconsidered running as a potential avenue to college.
“He didn’t have anything going on,” Dean said.
Especially from an anatomical perspective. Realizing Charles didn’t have the attenuated frame of a distance runner, Dean geared Charles’ training around heart and desire. Do the work, Dean assured Charles, and results will gradually follow.
Charles didn’t make it out of districts in the 1,600 his sophomore year, but by the next fall, had eclipsed 17 minutes in a cross country race and qualified for the Class 2A, Region 3 meet.
By spring 2010, he was anchoring the Tigers’ 4x800 relay team that placed sixth at state. Last week, he ran a personal-record time in the 1,600 (4:23.65) to win the Region 3 title in Titusville.
“I mean, we really put some work in,” Dean said. “And Franck, his biggest thing was, he was able to stand it, and I’ve got to give him credit for that. He stuck with it; he was able to stand it.”
There to exhort and encourage him was Casey, who had elevated his GPA from a 0.5 as a freshman to a qualifying level by the following year.
At the 2009 region cross country meet, he placed 24th -- four spots behind Charles -- and ran on the state-medal-winning 4x800 team the next spring. At last week’s Region 3 meet, he also notched a personal-best time in the 800 (1:56.14) to prevail.
“Mr. Casey, he can win that 800 (at state),” said Dixon, who required Casey to sign an 'eligibility contract’ to improve his grades. “If he chooses to.”
Only one more uphill stretch remains to be conquered.
“It wasn’t until they started watching how far up they were placing in cross country, so when we got over into track, the momentum was already there,” Dean said. “Once they started seeing wins mounting up, that was something.”
State track and field
Where: Showalter Field, Winter Park
When: A, Friday; 2A, Saturday
Admission: $8, parking is $5
Schedule: Field events and 4x800 relay finals, 1 p.m.; running event preliminaries, 4 p.m.; running event finals, 6:30 p.m.
Local A boys qualifiers: Cambridge — Damarcus Faison (high jump); Carrollwood Day — Robert Davis (100, 200); Seffner Christian — Brandon Ardley (long jump); Tampa Prep — Yuri Costa (3200), Peire Dobbins (4x800 relay), Miller Judge (4x800 relay), Oscar Skjaerpe (4x800 relay, 1600), Brian Steel (4x800 relay, 400)
Local A girls qualifiers: Cambridge — Madison Cox (200, 400); Seffner Christian — Brittany Keller (400), Sabrina Whiting (triple jump); Tampa Prep — Carly Reiner (long jump, triple jump, 100), Claire Snyder (3200)
Local 2A boys qualifiers: Berkeley Prep — Brett Campbell (4x800 relay), James Dowdle (4x800 relay), Alex Main (4x800 relay), Michael Rosenbach (4x800 relay); Jesuit — Nick Catchur (pole vault), Ike Edwards (shot put, discus), Rico Gonzalez (pole vault), Blake Lopez (800, 1600), Nick Medich (high jump); Middleton — Cassell Brown (4x800 relay), Le ‘trell Campbell (4x800 relay), Arthur Casey (4x800 relay, 800), Franck Charles (4x800 relay, 1600), Trevor Tyler (100); Robinson — Marqus Baker (4x100 relay), Ruben Gonzalez (4x400 relay), J.J. Hubbard (4x100 relay), Tevin Newman (discus), Brian Sharp (3200), Trae Washington (4x400 relay), Ja ‘Kees Wheeler (4x100 relay, 4x400 relay), Frankie Williams (4x100 relay, 4x400 relay); Steinbrenner — Zech Cesani (4x800 relay, 300 hurdles), Matt Magee (4x800 relay), Dan Sarver (4x800 relay), Matt Sarver (4x800 relay); Strawberry Crest — Devin Diggs (200, 400), Joey Trevino (300 hurdles)
Local 2A girls qualifiers: Academy of the Holy Names — Colleen Doherty (4x800 relay), Natalie Hahn (4x800 relay), Kaite Martin (4x800 relay), Ryann McEnany (long jump, 100 hurdles), Amanda McWilliams (4x800 relay); Middleton — Amber Brooks (800); Middleton — Shaniqua Hill (300 hurdles); Steinbrenner — Caroline Murray (400, 4x400 relay), Natalia Ortiz (4x400 relay), Taylor Thigpen (4x400 relay), Alexis Wright (triple jump, 100 hurdles, 300 hurdles, 4x400 relay); Strawberry Crest — Yasmine Gardiner (4x100 relay), Ambria Keys (4x100 relay), Sequoya Williams (4x100 relay), Brittany Barber (4x100 relay); Tampa Catholic — Mari Ostrenko (pole vault)