DADE CITY — Moments before Saturday's dawn turned a dark sky into a canvas of beautiful pastels, there was running.
More than 2,000 runners from 80 schools across the state came from as far as Key West, Tallahassee and Jacksonville to preview the grueling state course at Little Everglades Ranch.
The decision proved wise for those favored to return next month for the state meet.
The Little Everglades Prestate Invitational course was changed after once again being measured for distance. The result was a finish line a few yards down the steep incline from its former mark on the Green Monster — a notorious incline of grass known to eat up even experienced runners.
Sickles senior Derek Wehunt was one to benefit from the preview in the elite race. Not only would he test the course but also the field that included winner Matt Mizereck from Tallahassee Leon whose time of 15 minutes, 17 seconds set a course record.
Wehunt, who finished 13th (15:58) for the best placing among bay area runners in the race, led for 2 miles before he was gobbled up by the lead group.
"I went out early and tried holding it," Wehunt said. "I haven't had the best luck on this course, and it's definitely not one of my favorites. I tried holding the pace, but they got me."
The top 20 featured several bay area runners, including Trenor Wilkins (Plant, 14th in 16:05), Jordan Schilit (Jesuit, 16th in 16:09), John Grellner (Wharton, 18th in 16:14), Felix Soto (Land O'Lakes, 19th in 16:15) and John Mitchell (Durant, 20th in 16:21).
The top bay area finisher in the girls elite race was Wharton's Alyssa Frank in 20th (19:09). Plant's Michaela Kennedy was 23rd (19:18) and Land O'Lakes' Alyssa Brandt was 26th (19:20). Kathryn Fluehr of the Community School of Naples won in 18:01.
In the boys small schools race, Hernando senior Joe Wright finished second with a personal record (16:35). Wright overtook dozens of runners after a poor start to finish behind Patrick Swain of Maclay (16:34).
In the boys large school race, Armwood's Gilbert Vazquez had traded in football pads for a full-time go at cross country. It paid off with a third-place finish (16:41). Josh Wolfe of South Lake won in 16:35.
"Last night I took tallies of every team, and I knew what they brought to the table," Vazquez said. "… I wanted them to know Armwood is not just a state champion football team."
In the girls large schools race, King's Hilary White finished seventh (20:11) behind Vanessa Valentine of Melbourne (19.27). She overcame a late night at homecoming Friday. The car she traveled in broke down and the pasta she ate contained seafood. Not good for a self-proclaimed vegan.
"My date refused to buy me cheesecake," White said. "I thank him now. I was upset then."
In boys team scoring, Jesuit and Plant were fifth and ninth, respectively, in the elite race behind Belen Jesuit. In small schools, Wiregrass Ranch was third, Hernando sixth behind Maclay.
In the elite girls team scoring, Wharton was 10th, Newsome 11th and Plant 12th behind the Community School of Naples.
Izzy Gould can be reached at izzy firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 580-5315.