The East Hillsborough Invitational proved to be a handy little race last weekend.
It's scheduled early each cross-country season and does what most coaches can't do — provide an understanding of where teams truly stand.
The Newsome and Bloomingdale squads came away with clear pictures, with the Newsome girls outpacing the Bulls and the Bloomingdale boys edging Newsome despite a dominating run by individual winner Lars Benner.
The trio of schools from the Plant City area weren't as successful, but all three drew positives from the meet.
From the looks of it, Strawberry Crest stands a few paces ahead of the schools from its corner of east Hillsborough. The Chargers nudged out Durant and Plant City in both the girls and boys races held Saturday at Newsome High School.
"We did pretty good. But we want to do better," said Chargers head coach Mike Farrier.
Both Strawberry Crest's boys and girls teams finished fifth among the nine schools who participated.
Not surprisingly, senior Ashley Murray led the way. Murray finished eighth among the girls with a 5-kilometer time of 22:28, which translates to an average of 7:14 per mile. And that's slow for Murray, one of several Chargers hit with nagging injuries.
Murray has taken over as team captain.
"She's the most experienced on the team and she's been helping to bring along the young runners too," said Farrier.
Of those youngsters, freshman Christina Cauthen, made an impression at the race. After a time in the 28-minute range at her first cross-country meet, she shaved her time to 25:10 at Saturday's event, leaving Farrier excited.
"Lakewood Ranch, that's the dominant team in our region," Farrier said. "They seem to have all these tall girls who are just made to run cross-country. Well, Christina's one of those."
Stephanie Del Valle and Nancy Watkins, both seniors, and junior Meghan Pommier all finished in the top 40 to strengthen the Chargers team score.
For the boys, Cody Williamson had the fastest time, 19:21, good for 20th place. Top runner Scott Bartlett was hampered by injury. Farrier said the top Chargers all took part, much to his delight, in a summer conditioning program that featured 5 p.m. runs.
"Five o'clock in the summer, yeah it's pretty hot and humid out at that time still. We had some runners going 11 or 12 miles," Farrier said. "Cross-country season starts in the summer. If you sit back and wait until school starts you're going to be a little behind."
Among the three Plant City schools, the Raider girls were next, at sixth overall. They were led by Diana Corzine, who finished just out of the top 10 with a time of 23:24 good for 11th. Senior Hannah Whitmore was next best coming in 24th with a 25:03.
The Plant City High teams have taken fondly to their new head coach named Luke Beevor. The former English national team member and Florida State University runner is pretty easy to spot at meets being that he stands 6 feet 10 inches tall.
"He's a great coach," Farrier said. "I would expect we'll be competing with them a lot in the future."
Both teams were scheduled to take part in the annual Ron Frost Invitational hosted by Durant on Thursday. Next up is a Sept. 29 meet hosted by Seffner Christian at the Dover Trails.
Durant's head coach Mike Gursky has been very encouraged by the turnout the Cougars have had, particularly on the boys side with 25 runners.
"Both groups are working hard. We've had more participants than ever," Gursky said.
Because of the large number of boys on the squad, Gursky has had a few more runners than normal take part in the varsity meets, in the 8 to 10 range instead of the normal seven. But rules are stricter as the season goes on so the top seven will have to sort themselves out soon.
"We've had some newcomers already show up and make varsity basically, but who the top seven will be is an in-flux situation," Gursky said. "And always I want to have one or two key leaders, I'm a big believer in leading by example. I'd say we're still in flux with that too."
At the East Hillsborough Invitational, junior Duncan Fisher was tops among Cougar boys with a 19:19 time, good for 17th place. Senior Kibrom Fliegalman was 45 seconds behind Fisher and in 25th. Durant's score could have challenged Strawberry Crest's had top runner Danny Butler not missed the race due to a foot injury.
Sophomore Lavena Kimmel was 31st at the East Hillsborough race to pace the Durant girls.