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TRINITY -- In the 40 seasons Jeff Leavey has been coaching boys and girls cross country between Illinois and Florida, one trend the veteran coach has noticed is that it’s more difficult for female runners to improve over the course of their high school career than their male counterparts.
Leavey, who has coached cross country the past six seasons at Mitchell, theorizes it’s a product of the human maturation process. Because girls tend to mature faster than boys, they typically run some of their best times as freshmen and sophomores. Boys, meanwhile, get stronger as they progress through high school, allowing them to shave considerable time off their personal bests by the time they are seniors.
Kelli Williams, though, is the anomaly.
The Mitchell senior placed second at districts (3A-3) last week, covering the McKethan Lake course in a personal record 18:46. She enters Friday’s 3A-2 region meet at Starkey Park, the Mustangs’ home course, as one of the favorites in a star-studded field.
"She’s 40 seconds ahead of her time from last season," Leavey said. "That’s a very rare event."
Indeed, Williams has continued to get better and better throughout her high school career. She started the year running 19:21 in the first race of the season, which was, at that point, her fastest time ever. That finish was 15 seconds better than any time she ran during her junior season.
"Starting the year at 19:21 was huge (personal record) from my old PR," Williams said. "I started my year feeling really good and really strong. A lot of athletes go in strong and it kind of wears off. For me, it started a fire and made me want to continue dropping my time."
Williams credits her steady progression to a rigorous summer workout schedule with an emphasis on hills. Figuring that she would cap off her senior season with a state meet appearance at Little Everglades Ranch, a course notorious for sweeping, rolling terrain rarely experienced by Florida runners, Williams spent much of the offseason training in Clearwater, running back and forth over the Clearwater Causeway Bridge, Sand Key Bridge and Belleair Bridge, often all three in the same day.
"I’ve definitely been pushing it the best I can," Williams said. "I’m really enjoying watching the times go down and all the hard work I’ve put in pay off."
Friday, Williams will look to qualify for states for the third straight year. As a sophomore, she ran 19:26 to place 24th in Class 4A. Last season while battling the flu, her time slipped a bit to 19:38, but she finished one spot higher at 23rd in Class 3A.
"I remember going into states my first year and feeling overwhelmed," Williams said. "I didn’t know how to handle it. I definitely think that experience is going to help. I kind of know what I’m up against."
In her final go-round as a high school cross country runner, Williams hopes that the state meet will once again bring out her best. She wants to take a couple more seconds off her personal record and place in the top ten.
"This sport is so mentally demanding, you just have to want to succeed," Williams said. "I’ve grown to be one of those athletes that really wants it. I’m really determined."
And that’s a drive that even biology can’t alter.
Class 3A, Region 2
Where: Starkey Park, New Port Richey
Start: Girls, 8 a.m.; Boys, 8:40 p.m.
Local teams competing: Girls – Wiregrass Ranch, Gulf, Springstead, Ridgewood, Nature Coast Tech; Boys – Wiregrass Ranch, Land O’Lakes, Nature Coast, Mitchell, Sunlake, Ridgewood.
Individual qualifiers: Girls – Kelli Williams (Mitchell), Nicole Solmonson (Zephyrhills); Boys – Nicholas Buliga (Gulf).
Class 2A, Region 2
Where: Chain of Lakes, Titusville
Start: Girls, 9 a.m.; Boys, 9:40 a.m.
Local teams competing: Girls – Pasco, Wesley Chapel, Anclote; Boys – Pasco
Individual qualifiers: Girls – Sierra Illes (Fivay); Boys – Jesse Balogh (Hernando), Argishti Gazari (Anclote), Spencer Guerette (Anclote), Christopher Sorrick (Anclote), Tyler Lisnock (Fivay)