TRINITY — On a muggy night this week, Mitchell senior Elaina Cancello ran through a soggy field during cross country practice.
As her feet sloshed through the mud and puddles, you could hear the splashes of her twin, Claudia, working on her cardio next door, paddling with a kickboard through the quiet pool at the YMCA.
Even when they’re separated by a patch of waterlogged grass and a fence, the Cancellos challenge each other. Their friendly competition has pushed them to become two of Pasco County’s top all-around athletes on a Mitchell cross country team ready to improve on a ninth-place finish at regionals last year.
“They have the work ethic of a champion,” Mustangs cross country coach Jeff Leavey said.
That work ethic has helped the relative cross country newcomers develop into two of the team’s top competitors.
Though racing runs in the family — their mother ran the Chicago Marathon, and the twins began joining her in 5K events when they were in elementary school — the Cancellos’ first sport was swimming. They didn’t start running in high school until taking up track their sophomore year.
“I just kind of realized I was getting good at it,” Claudia said.
Track led to cross country, which led to a busy fall schedule for the fraternal (but identical looking) twins. They start their days with grits at the YMCA before 6 a.m. cross country practice. After school, they work out with the swim team, including younger sister, Katherine, who was a 2011 honorable mention all-North Suncoast swimmer as a freshman.
“A lot of people think it is (tough), but you just get used to it, once you wake up in the morning and get used to your routine,” Elaina said.
They adapted quickly to double duty last fall, setting a handful of school relay records in the pool and missing out qualifying for state in the 200 medley relay by less than a second.
In cross country, Claudia trimmed a minute and a half off of her time last season, enough to qualify for the Class 3A state meet as an individual. She finished 35th (19:52.08). Elaina shaved a minute off of her time and placed 20th at regionals (20:28.10), and they both finished in the top six at the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet.
Their quick success and nearly identical looks make them easy to spot but hard to differentiate. Claudia — a minute older and an inch shorter — wears her hair in a ponytail, while Elaina puts hers in a bun.
“Sometimes it’s hard,” Elaina said “When we’re at the meets on Saturday, some girls are like, ‘Oh, look, there’s the twins.’ Everyone knows who you are. It’s like, oh, we’ve got to keep it up.”
Running has slowly become the twins’ focus. They enjoy swimming but hope to become competitive runners in college.
The Cancellos have already emerged as standouts on a strong Mitchell team that placed third in the conference last season. Claudia took third at last week’s season opener at Lecanto; Elaina was 45th, and teammate Emily Kerns took 10th.
“They’re crazy good,” said Troy Shea, a third-team all-conference runner last fall who will lead Mitchell’s boys team this season.
But they’re not crazy competitive, at least with each other. You won’t hear them talk trash or see them sprint across the line to show the other up. They focus on improving each other with friendly pushes, not sisterly shoves.
“We always help each other…” Elaina said. “She always makes it fun to run together.”
Boys to watch
Travis Nichols, Land O’Lakes: He won a district title as a sophomore (15:58.40) and took 16th at the Class 3A state meet.
Ermias Bireda, Wiregrass Ranch: The senior was the North Suncoast’s top runner at state after placing fifth in the region.
Spencer Guerette, Anclote: The senior took fourth at state in the 1,600 meters last spring in track and earned second-team all-conference honors in cross country.
Boys teams to watch
Nature Coast: The Sharks return several top runners - seniors Cody Van Natter, Kevin Ciccone and Stephen Murphy and junior James Harkless - from a team that took fifth place in the Class 2A state meet.
Land O’Lakes: The Gators placed 21st at the 3A state meet and return six of their top seven runners, including Nichols, juniors Tyler Stahl (16:24 PR) and Jake Poore (16:51) and Steven Barnabei (17:44).
Wiregrass Ranch: The Bulls figure to be Pasco County’s top team again, behind Bireda, Thor Alastre, Patrick Hill and Ben Hall. All of them placed in the top 25 at district last year.
Girls to watch
Kari Grippo, Gulf: A leg injury hindered her at state as a sophomore, but she was strong enough to finish ninth in Class 2A.
Nikita Shah, Wiregrass Ranch: One of Tampa Bay’s top runners should be in for a big senior year. She finished fourth at the Class 3A state meet last fall and was the Times’ all-North Suncoast runner of the year.
Tiana Newton, Springstead: After starting her career with a strong freshman season, Newton took ninth at the opening Lecanto Invitational (21:25.40).
irls teams to watch
Nature Coast: The Sharks started the season well by winning the Lecanto Invitational last weekend. Senior Brielle Perlingieri and juniors Mary Thomson, Alyssa Deligio and Brianna Horn led the charge.
Wiregrass Ranch: Don Howard’s team made another run to state last fall and will be poised to do it again this year behind Shah, Madison Conway, Berlin Waters, Elise Cedre and the North Suncoast’s deepest lineup.
Gulf: Grippo and the Buccaneers took second at district last year and entered this season ranked ninth in Class 2A. Gulf remains one of Pasco County’s top teams.
Matt Baker can be reached at email@example.com.