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TAMPA — For the first 2 miles of Tuesday evening’s West Hillsborough Invitational, Plant sophomore Julia Rodriguez’s pace seemed as conservative as Sarah Palin’s politics.
Then, on a cue from coach Roy Harrison, Rodriguez liberally increased the distance between her two nearest foes for a landslide victory.
Virtually conjoined with Academy of the Holy Names eighth-grader Colleen Doherty and Steinbrenner sophomore Lauren Garris the first two-thirds of the race, Rodriguez burst from the tiny pack in the final mile to win by nearly a half minute at Al Lopez Park.
Rodriguez (19:46.81), a team-best 23rd at last year’s Class 4A state meet, was the only girls runner to eclipse 20 minutes. Doherty (20:12.15) was second; Garris (20:32.93) was third.
“It was a different experience than what I usually run,” Rodriguez said. “I’m usually catching people because it’s a way larger group.
This race, I had to hold back and then dictate.”
On a warm, dry evening, the fastest girls runner may also have been among the loneliest. Plant’s four other top runners were held out by Harrison to keep them fresh for the flrunners.com Invitational on Oct. 2 in Titusville.
That enabled Holy Names (35 points) to snap the Panthers’ streak of four consecutive West Hillsborough team titles. The Jaguars’ top five runners finished in the top 10.
Rodriguez, who will miss the Titusville race due to a family reunion, nonetheless was held back to preserve her 15-year-old legs for the season’s stretch run.
“She wanted to take off earlier; I had to yell at her two or three times,” Harrison said. “Running fast at a meet like this is just using up races you’re going to need at the end of the year.”
On the boys side, Plant senior Bo Nalsen won for the second year in a row (16:25.54), edging teammate Travis Christenberry (16:33.94).
Half the top-10 finishers were Panthers. Plant’s 26 team points were 37 more than surprise runnerup Steinbrenner, a second-year program coached by former Leto star Bobby McConnell.
“This was supposed to be a race, but it was still conservative for the most part,” Nalsen said. “The idea was to stick with the leaders for the first half and then make a move.”