TAMPA — As dusk segued into darkness Tuesday at Al Lopez Park, and dozens of perspiring West Hillsborough Invitational runners converged near a pavilion, a voice on a megaphone proclaimed second-year Steinbrenner as runnerup of the boys race.
In unwitting fashion, that amplified voice also may have been heralding the arrival of the area’s newest 5-kilometer force.
If Warriors coach Bobby McConnell’s vision comes to reality, the fledgling program in Lutz will become a replicate of the historic one at Leto.
A star on Leto’s 1995 state title team and a member of the Falcons’ state championship 4x800-meter relay team, McConnell is trying to resuscitate some of the Falcons’ glory at Steinbrenner.
“We’re still a work in progress, trying to build something special,” said McConnell, who had five runners among the top 18 Tuesday. “We’ve got a good group of guys working hard.”
On a warm night mostly bereft of humidity, Steinbrenner slipped past local power Jesuit — which trains frequently at Al Lopez — to earn the runnerup trophy behind Plant. Seniors Matt Sarver (17:11.70) and Alex Newby (17:21.28) finished eighth and ninth, respectively.
Those two are part of a program that now includes 22 runners — and two legends. Former Leto coach Bobby Ennis, architect of the Falcons’ fabled “Long Red Row,” and former Largo coach Brent Haley are helping McConnell.
Together, Ennis and Haley have 17 state titles, collected between 1970 and ’95. Mix that experience with a Warriors work ethic McConnell lauds, and the area could see Steinbrenner evolve from decent to dominant to perhaps even dynasty.
“I’m always picking (Ennis’ and Haley’s) mind,” McConnell said. “I can call them anytime.”
The Natural, Part II? Veteran Plant girls coach Roy Harrison needed only one training run to realize the potential of sophomore Julia Rodriguez.
Rodriguez, winner of Tuesday’s West Hillsborough Invitational and the Panthers’ top finisher at the Class 4A state meet as a freshman, easily knocked out a 5-mile run her first day with the team two summers ago.
Harrison said the only other Panthers rookie to pull that off: Caroline Annis, who won four state titles and earned all-America honors at Stanford.
“(Rodriguez) wasn’t even breathing (after that first run),” Harrison recalled Tuesday. “I was like, ‘Hmm.’ ”
Odds and ends: Plant’s girls and boys are second and fourth, respectively, in Class 4A in the first FACA regular-season rankings released Wednesday. Holy Names is eighth in the 2A girls rankings. …Berkeley Prep senior Michael Rosenbach had the best local showing (17:07.33) at last weekend’s Mountain Dew Invitational on the University of Florida Golf Course. …Holy Names, Steinbrenner and Robinson are among the two-dozen teams slated to run in Tuesday’s Seffner Christian CC Classic at Sydney Dover Trails in Brandon. Varsity races start at 5:45 p.m. …T-shirt slogan of the week, emblazoned on the back of shirts worn by Sickles runners: “Our shoes have more miles than your car.”
Cross country honor roll
1. Max del Monte, Chamberlain: Recorded county’s first sub-16-minute time of year (15:57.44) at McCall Invitational
2. Jake Covington, Chamberlain: Should run neck-and-neck with del Monte all season
3. Bo Nalsen, Plant: Winner of West Hillsborough Invitational (16:25.54) should sneak into 15s by November
4. Travis Christenberry, Plant: Runnerup to Nalsen at West Hillsborough (16:33.94)
5. Michael Babinec, Riverview: Finished behind only del Monte and Covington at McCall Invitational
1. Julia Rodriguez, Plant: Ran at a pace and still coasted to West Hillsborough Invitational title (19:46.81)
2. Grace Van De Grift, Durant: Made sparkling 2010 debut with victory at McCall Invitational (19:31.74)
3. Katherine Ralston, Plant: Posted an impressive time (20:06.75) on waterlogged course at FACA Classic
4. Sabrina Whiting, Seffner Christian: Eclipsed 20 minutes on rural course at Mitchell Invitational
5. Colleen Doherty, Holy Names: Eighth-grader was second at West Hillsborough Invite (20:12.15)