WESLEY CHAPEL — Ariel Grey once ran around race courses toying with opponents the way a Porsche might run circles around mom’s minivan.
Wiregrass Ranch’s top female runner was often unbeatable. Then a Ferrari blew right by her, whipped her into a mental tailspin, one she finally seems to have snapped out of in recent weeks.
“Nikita (Shah) ran by her in a race and she was never the same after that,” Bulls coach Don Howard said. “It was all in her head.”
Grey will step on to her home track Wednesday in the Class 3A, District 7 meet with no worries, she says. Any mental stumbling blocks that derailed what became a disappointing cross country season have been removed, Howard says.
“It was my downfall,” Grey said of Shah’s emergence as a top-flight runner. “Honestly, I think it was a mental thing for me. I had another teammate I had never had before, who was faster than me. It messes with you. I wasn’t used to it.”
Shah, a freshman, burst on to the local running scene last fall, finishing as the Times’ North Suncoast female runner of the year. She finished 17th at state in 19:32.79, while Grey finished 45th in 20:26.61.
“It was all in her head,” Howard said. “We started the season and (Grey) ran a 19:15 the first race, the fastest she’s ever run. She was ready to run fast. …She recognized it and she said, ‘I’m not going to be like that in track, I promise you, Coach. I’m going to have the best track season I’ve ever had.’ ”
So far, it appears Grey has made good on that promise.
She set a personal record in the biggest race of the season, running a 5:16.16 in the 1,600 meters at the Florida Relays in Gainesville. She also ran a personal best in the 800 (2:23.65).
At the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet, Grey finished second to Mitchell’s Kelli Williams in the 1,600, but won the 3,200, defeating Shah by almost eight seconds. She’ll race both of those girls Wednesday.
“She trains hard,” Howard said. “She does everything you ask her to do exactly how I ask her to do it. She doesn’t make excuses for herself. She’s fit physically and now she’s got the head to match it.”
She’s also more mature. Instead of feeling threatened by the up-and-coming Shah, Grey said she has learned to embrace her presence.
“It got to me that somebody was running with me all the time,” Grey said. “I knew she was going to be good. I saw her race in middle school. …I never saw her as a bad person for beating me. Competition is good. Obviously, I didn’t like it at first. I was used to being No. 1 all the time.
“But sharing it takes a lot of the burden off your shoulders when you know someone there as good as you can help you. …I’ve learned to appreciate her more.”
At stake: The top four place winners in each event advance to regionals.
Class 3A, District 7
Where: Wiregrass Ranch
Schools: Central, Gulf, Hudson, Land O’Lakes, Mitchell, Nature Coast, Ridgewood, River Ridge, Springstead, Sunlake, Wiregrass Ranch, Zephyrhills
At stake: The top four place winners in each event advance to next week’s state meet in Winter Park.
Class 2A, Region 3
When: Wednesday, noon
Where: Naples Golden Gate
Schools: Anclote, Hernando, Pasco, Wesley Chapel
Keep an eye on: For the boys, Pasco’s Hakeeme Ishmar won the triple and long jumps and was a member of the winning 4x100 relay at district last week. For the girls, Wesley Chapel’s Jazzmyn Love-Roberts won the 100 and was the anchor of the winning 4x100 relay.
Class A, Region 3
When: Wednesday, noon
Where: Naples Community School
Schools: Academy at the Lakes, Bishop McLaughlin
Keep an eye on: For the girls, Hurricanes thrower Tori Harris won the discus and shot put at districts last week. For the boys, Hurricanes thrower Shane Mendoza was second in the shot put.