DADE CITY — Moments after his team had completed the season’s last mile, Roy Harrison sought the last laugh.
Upon being shown the final results of the Class 4A state meet, the veteran Plant girls coach walked a couple hundred yards down a hill to where his runners had set up a makeshift camp, and huddled them up. Then, mustering the most grim expression he could,
Harrison addressed them.
“It was a team effort,” he began somberly. “Some of you ran great, some of you didn’t, but …we won.”
With that, the Panthers jumped, whooped, squealed and embraced.
Employing Harrison’s strategy — avoid a breakneck start, remain in a pack, then explode at the end — the Panthers won their state-record ninth team title on a cool, clear morning at Little Everglades Ranch.
“They ran awesome,” Harrison said. “They did it as a team. It was a team effort.”
The Panthers’ 87-point performance — 11 better than primary rival Miami Lourdes — served as the most luminous Hillsborough County highlight on a day full of them.
Steinbrenner’s boys capped their improbable second season with a runnerup team finish in Class 2A, Chamberlain junior Max del Monte placed fifth (15:22.10) in the boys 4A race, and Durant’s Grace VanDeGrift ended a sparkling senior year by finishing seventh (18:33.49) in 3A girls.
“This week, we didn’t do anything but get them to try to relax,” said Steinbrenner coach Bobby McConnell, whose district championship team appeared uncharacteristically tight in a fifth-place effort at the Region 5 meet eight days before.
“We said, ‘Hey, nobody’s expecting us to do anything, we’ve accomplished what our goal was, which was to get to the state meet. …There’s no pressure on you guys.’ All the coaches, we all felt extremely good about the way practices went this week.”
Similarly, Harrison had instructed his girls not to panic if Lourdes exploded from the starting box. Nine and a half minutes into the race, no Panther was in the top 10.
But by race’s end, sophomore Julia Rodriguez had placed sixth (18:43.50) and classmate Caroline Gibson ninth (18:51.97) — both personal-best efforts worthy of all-state medals. Gibson passed a handful of runners on the final stretch, a gradual, grass incline of a few hundred yards.
“I psyched myself out the last race; I didn’t run a good race at all,” said Gibson, 13th at the Region 3 meet. “(Harrison) said, “The only plan is to go out there, stay with your teammates …and go if you feel good. I felt good and I went.”
del Monte also used a late surge in the final straightaway to slip just ahead of Pinellas County rival Chase Sutton of Seminole (15:23.03) and Orlando Colonial’s Andres Arroyo (15:26.56).
“It wasn’t too hot but then again it wasn’t too cold where it was unbearable,” del Monte said. “It was a perfect mix. I’m definitely pleased. This is, like, the hardest region and classification in the state, and being able to place (fifth), I’m very pleased.”
VanDeGrift wasn’t as overjoyed. Essentially neck and neck with eventual winner Sarah Spann of Fort Myers at the outset, the University of Florida commitment fell 20 meters off the lead at the 11/2-mile mark and had slipped to fifth at the 2-mile point.
“I couldn’t keep up that pace, which was a mistake on my part training-wise, but that’s okay,” said VanDeGrift, who won county, district and region titles this season. “It wasn’t really that bad of a day, I just didn’t run my best.”
Also earning all-state status as a top-10 placer was Academy of the Holy Names eighth-grader Colleen Doherty, who placed ninth (18:55.00) in the 2A girls race. The Jaguars placed ninth as a team as well.
On the boys side, Jesuit and Berkeley Prep placed third and sixth, respectively, in the 2A race, while Plant was a county-best seventh in 4A. Jesuit senior Blake Lopez ended his career with a medal, placing seventh in the 2A race (16:10.20).