DADE CITY — Teams across the state sniff out the dirt road that leads to this pristine course in a quest to test their mettle.
They lace their shoes, take deep breathes and their hearts beat faster.
Beside them are dozens of anxious runners, the best that Florida has to offer. Before them stands the Green Monster, a humbling hill that defines Little Everglades Ranch as it devours the most fit athletes every autumn.
The common question at Saturday's Prestate Classic: Just where does each runner stand a month away from returning here for the state meet?
Land O'Lakes discovered its boys team could rise above expectations with a 17th-place finish in the elite race (there were also large and small schools races). The Gators were led by senior Matt Schwartz, who was disappointed in his 31st-place finish (16 minutes, 21.34 seconds).
Gators coach Kris Keppel praised the overall team performance, noting several personal records, including Zack Lonsway (16:50.48) and Hendrix LaFontant (16:52.40), who finished 67th and 70th, respectively.
"We have six guys that can be in the 17s," Keppel said. "That's very encouraging on the state course."
For the girls, the outcome was similar for Renea Porsch, who finished 43rd (19:54.81) in the elite race, leading the Gators to 20th place. Porsch said she was feeling "very tired" but acknowledged improvement in her third race at Little Everglades.
"I've definitely improved since last year," Porsch said. "… I was more prepared this year because we've done a lot of hill work."
In other races, Nature Coast had one of its top performances this season despite missing David Cross, who had a prior obligation. The Sharks finished eighth in the large schools race, led by Bruce Federico's 14th-place finish (17:01.85). Tyler Harrison was 35th (17:22.52) and Cody Van Natter was 45th (17:38.37).
Nature Coast has struggled this season, still reeling from the departure of coach Armen Merjanian, who was replaced before the season by Trevor Barlow.
"It was a struggle at first," Federico said. "Some of us were hesitant to run for this guy, but he's a good guy."
Pasco's boys finished 15th in the small schools race, led by Anthony Plourde, who finished seventh (17:07.24). Anclote was 18th.
In the girls large schools race, Springstead was 10th, led by Jaclyn White (21:27.33), who finished 25th. Mikayla Bogulski was 43rd (22.14.29). Nature Coast was 20th.
Pasco girls finished 16th in the small schools race.