DADE CITY — The rivalry appeared to be conceived in early September. As the fall progressed, it developed shape, even a heartbeat. On Saturday morning, it was spawned.
History will indicate the Land O'Lakes-Wiregrass Ranch boys cross country rivalry formally entered the world at the Sunshine Athletic Conference meet at Withlacoochee River Park. With five runners in the top 23, the Gators — winners of four SAC crowns in a row — edged the Bulls. By one point.
But they're certain to see coach Chris Loth's team again. Of the Bulls' top seven runners Saturday, none were seniors.
"It was too close for comfort," Gators coach Kris Keppel said. "But I'd rather have a rivalry than not have a rivalry."
Wiregrass, a clear favorite at Thursday afternoon's Class 2A, District 3 meet in Brooksville, had shown signs of overtaking the Gators as early as Sept. 16, when it edged them by four points to win the seven-team Wiregrass Ranch Stampede on its home course. The Gators, however, were running at a predetermined pace that day.
Four days later, the teams finished tied for second at the Zak Lukas Invitational in Brooksville, with the Bulls clinching the tiebreaker based on a better finish by their No. 6 runner.
Saturday, they appeared poised to break the Gators' stranglehold on conference supremacy when three of their runners — Josh Reilly, Tyler Mattera and Logan Setzer — crossed the finish line in a virtual pack in 12th, 13th and 14th place, respectively.
Two other Bulls — sophomore Ryan Pulsifer (16:56) and classmate John Davis (17:17) — had finished fifth and 10th, respectively. But the 1-2 finish of Gators senior Felix Soto (16:08) and junior Matt Schwartz (16:45) was too much to overcome.
This year, anyway.
"They're still the class of the county," Loth said. "And until someone dethrones them they're still the team to beat."