Path clears for Countryside boys

Countryside’s Zach Christenson is usually at the front of the pack for the Cougars. He won the season’s opening meet and has two runnerup finishes.

ATOYIA DEANS | Times

Countryside’s Zach Christenson is usually at the front of the pack for the Cougars. He won the season’s opening meet and has two runnerup finishes.

They ran on narrow, rugged trails. They ran out of valleys and into hills. They ran until they were bent at the waist, staggering to find their legs.

And they ran.

And ran.

This summer, Countryside's boys cross country team logged more than 60 miles a week on practice runs.

Most of those were at parks and trails in North Pinellas. But they also spent a week in July in the Appalachian Mountains, where the elevation and terrain helped translate into stamina and strength in flatland races.

"The guys put in a lot of work this offseason," Countryside coach Eileen Givens said. "I think we're starting to see it pay off."

On paper, things have lined up nicely for the Cougars to defeat archspoiler Seminole and win the conference title. Not only does Countryside have experience (all five varsity runners return), but it faces many county teams who lost stars to graduation, including the Warhawks.

Countryside, though, is thinking beyond conference. The Cougars believe they have a legitimate shot to contend for a state title.

A series of emphatic, early-season triumphs suggest they have a chance.

Last week, Countryside swept the top five spots at a meet featuring mostly north county teams.

The Cougars followed with a runnerup finish at the Elite Running Invitational in Winter Haven last weekend. At that meet, Countryside knocked off state-ranked Winter Park and was just 20 points behind champion Orlando Dr. Phillips.

"I think that opened a lot of eyes, and it helped give our guys some confidence," Givens said.

On Tuesday, the Cougars placed all five runners in the top 12 and won their own invitational for the first time.

Zach Christenson has set the pace for Countryside, winning the opening meet of the season and finishing runnerup at the Elite Running Invitational and Cougar Invitational.

But the more encouraging sign is that his teammates are not too far behind. Nick Ribble and Kosta Fotopoulis have finished in the top five in two of three meets this season.

"Before it was just Zach by himself," Givens said. "Now they're all jostling for position. And they're getting faster. Nearly all the guys were running around 18 minutes at this time last year. We're now around 16 minutes."

Givens knew it would take time to build the program into a winner.

"You have to give yourself three years to really see results," Givens said. "We're starting to see that progression."

No one is accusing the Cougars of traveling an easy road. Countryside is participating in elite meets, such as the Flrunners.com Invitational and the Disney Classic within the next month.

"You have to put in the hard work," Givens said. "And when you win, it makes the hard work that much easier."

Path clears for Countryside boys 09/24/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 8:55pm]

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