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As Countryside won its fifth straight district title last season, coach Eileen Givens allowed herself a few minutes to celebrate.
Then she started preparing for this season. The process of replacing 18 seniors, including the bulk of her distance specialists, had already begun.
While acknowledging the contributions of a group that helped the Cougars win five straight conference and district titles and a region championship, Givens knew she had to look ahead.
“You always have look to develop and move athletes around to find the right spots,” Givens said.
Though Countryside lost a lot, it still has the talent to contend for conference, district and region titles. Givens is trying to find the proper pieces to fit the Cougars’ championship puzzle.
“We graduate about 15 to 18 guys every year,” Givens said. “That’s nothing new. The big thing for us is we lost our distance runners all at the same time. It was a group I had since they were freshmen. That will hurt.”
What the Cougars lack in depth, particularly in longer races, they make up for in star power with Derek Messmore, a middle-distance specialist who placed seventh in the 400 meters last season and has signed with USF. Wylan Bernitt, one of the county’s best hurdlers, has signed with Duke. There also is Ricy Brown (800 meters) and Parker Polgar (pole vault), both returning state place winners in their signature events.
And if Countryside did take a hit in numbers, it can take solace in knowing that the other county public school boys teams did as well.
Perhaps the only team that can stay with Countryside is Admiral Farragut, which returns two state champions. But the teams will rarely square off and don’t have to worry about facing each other in the playoffs.
That should help Givens keep her streak alive. Counting her 12 seasons coaching girls at Lakewood, Givens is 17-for-17 in district titles.
Girls to watch
Chase Cook-Martin, Boca Ciega: Had a stellar debut as a freshman last season, placing sixth at state in the triple jump.
Lindsey Cooper, Clearwater Central Catholic: Soccer standout who signed with Florida is the county’s best middle-distance runner and took fourth at state in the 400 last season.
Kala Funderburk, Lakewood: The Memphis recruit is a versatile athlete and will be counted on in a multitude of sprints and field events.
Victoria Goodwin, Northside Christian: A strong hurdler and jumper, Goodwin is among several returning athletes for the region champion Mustangs.
Katelyn Greenleaf, Northside Christian: The Times’ 2010 girls athlete of the year has not lost a race to a county athlete in the 1,600 or 3,200 the past three years.
Alexis Irwin, Osceola: The defending PCAC cross country champion is one of the county’s top returners in the 800 and 1,600.
Sharell Keys, Lakewood: As a freshman last season, she was a state runnerup in the 100 and a state qualifier in the 200.
Tania McCullum, St. Petersburg: Consistently placed among the top three in the 100 and 200 last season.
Courtney O’Donoghue, Clearwater: The county’s top returning pole vaulter placed sixth at state last season.
Destini Oglesby, Admiral Farragut: A field event dynamo, Oglesby is strongest in the discus and shot put.
Top girls teams
1. Lakewood: A surplus of sprinters should put the Spartans in contention for state titles in the 100, 200 and 400, as well as the 4x100 and 4x400 relays.
2. Northside Christian: Though they were young last season, the Mustangs still won district and region titles. Most are back, including distance star Katelyn Greenleaf.
3. Osceola: The county’s surprise team last season upset Lakewood to win the team title at districts. The Warriors again will be led by distance specialist Alexis Irwin.
4. St. Petersburg: There are enough sprinters and athletes in field events for the Green Devils to stay with the county’s top public schools at the conference meet.
5. Seminole: The majority of points scored at meets will come from a strong group of distance runners and in the field events.
Boys to watch
Darion Bentley, St. Petersburg: The county’s top returner in the triple jump was a state qualifier in the event last season.
Ricy Brown, Countryside: Placed eighth at state in the 800 meters last season and became one of the county’s top cross country runners in the fall.
Wylan Bernitt, Countryside: The Duke recruit posted the county’s top time in the 300 hurdles last season and was on the 4x400 relay team that placed seventh at state.
Sharrod Harriel, Dunedin: A standout wide receiver with great leaping ability, Harriel showed off those skills by qualifying for state in the high jump last season.
Rayshawn Jenkins, Admiral Farragut: The Times’ 2010 boys athlete of the year won a state title in the 110 hurdles and finished as the state runnerup in the 300 hurdles.
Perry Joseph, Gibbs: With most of the county’s sprinters graduating, Joseph becomes the best hope for a state medal in the 200.
Derek Messmore, Countryside: The USF recruit was seventh at state in the 400 meters and a member of the 4x400 relay team.
Parker Polgar, Countryside: Overshadowed by the county’s dominance in the pole vault at the Class A meet, Parker placed eighth in the event in 4A.
Gem Runyan, Admiral Farragut: Beat out two other county athletes to win the Class A title in the pole vault last season.
Chase Sutton, Seminole: The county’s premier boys distance runner placed third in the 1,600 meters at state and was just as dominant in cross country this past season.
Top boys teams
1. Countryside: Despite graduating some distance runners, the Cougars still have more talent than any team in the county, particularly in the middle-distance races, and should have no trouble defending their conference and district titles.
2. Admiral Farragut: The only team in the county with two returning state champions will be dominant at the private school level and could have an outside shot at winning a state team title.
3. Lakewood: Graduation and some off-field incidents have stripped the Spartans of their depth in sprints. But there are still enough athletes to stay with the county’s top teams.
4. St. Petersburg: Last year, the Green Devils were consistently the third-best public school team in the county and have enough returning athletes to contend for team titles at major meets.
5. Seminole: A superb cross country season should carry over into track with the Warhawks’ strong group of distance runners leading the way.
Class 4A-5: Clearwater, Countryside, East Lake, Northeast, Palm Harbor University, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Seminole
Class 3A-10: Boca Ciega, Dixie Hollins, Dunedin, Gibbs, Lakewood, Largo, Osceola, Tarpon Springs.
Class 2A-10: Bradenton Southeast, Clearwater Central Catholic, DeSoto, Hardee, Lennard, Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, Sarasota Riverview, St. Petersburg Catholic.
Class A-9: Academy at the Lakes, Bayshore Christian, Bishop McLaughlin, Calvary Christian, Cambridge, Carrollwood Day, Indian Rocks Christian, Northside Christian, Seffner Christian, Seven Rivers Christian, Tampa Prep, Tampa Bay Christian.
Class A-11: Admiral Farragut, Bradenton Christian, Bradenton St. Stephen’s, Canterbury, Keswick Christian, Sarasota Christian, Sarasota Out-of-Door, Shorecrest.
For the fans
Regular season: Last week was the start of regular-season meets in Class A and 2A. This week regular-season meets began in 3A and 4A. The regular season ends April 9 for Class A-2A and April 16 for 3A-4A.
Postseason: The district meets for Class A-2A are April 11-16. The district meets for 3A-4A are April 18-23. The top four in each event at districts advance to regionals, which will be April 20-22 for A-2A and April 27-29 for 3A-4A. The top four in each event at regionals advance to state, which is April 29 (A), April 30 (2A), May 6 (3A) and May 7 (4A) at Showalter Field in Winter Park.