DADE CITY — Somewhere along State Road 52, the hills grow taller and make the runner's heart beat faster. The rural landscape is smothered with tall oaks and reminds everyone this race is big.
Infamous Little Everglades Ranch hosted another round of state cross country championships on a frigid Saturday morning, by Florida standards. Once again, good runners were humbled, the great ones rewarded.
Hillsborough County was well-represented, and Jesuit was a fan favorite early.
But Jesuit's bid for the Class 2A title fell short in a second-place finish behind dominant Belen Jesuit, a team that had its top five runners finish among the top 14.
The Tigers' five finished in the top 17, including seniors Connor Revord and Jordan Schilit coming in sixth (15:52) and seventh (15:55), respectively.
Jacksonville Bishop Kenny junior Michael Wallace won the race (15:19), missing the course record by one second.
"Belen was the favorite," Revord said. "We wanted to come in and pull an upset. It didn't happen. We tried our best, and we have to be proud of what we did. We have a lot of support."
In Class 3A, Newsome finished fifth, followed by Plant in sixth. Panthers junior John Wilkins finished sixth (15:54), while Newsome senior Keegan Bixler was 12th (16:07).
And in 4A, Sickles finished a disappointing ninth, with senior Derek Wehunt in tears after he struggled to 84th place (17:27) to finish fifth for the Gryphons. Wehunt, who won his third district title and once set a goal of running 15:10 this season, has battled a lingering cold for weeks. It remained in his lungs Saturday in his final high school race.
"I thought I drank enough water and ate enough food," Wehunt said. "I went out there and I couldn't move. I cramped up really bad. I couldn't breathe out there. Everything that could have went wrong went wrong today."
In the 4A race, Durant senior John Mitchell ended his career with his best state finish — eighth place (15:59).
"I started experiencing a little cramping, and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, not on a day like this,' " Mitchell said. "I just had to hold on. I was looking for top five, but if I pushed, I would have been dead without a kick."
For the girls, in 4A, Gaither finished 17th, led by senior Julissa Lopez in 38th (19:58).
In 3A, Wharton and Newsome finished fourth and fifth, respectively.
Newsome senior Rebecca Webster (19:30) was 21st, followed by Wildcats senior Alyssa Franks in 22nd (19:36).
Franks suffered from a lingering cold as well. She took medicine to try to recover but said she was still tired.
"My voice is better," Franks said. "I didn't have it (Friday). This is usually my favorite course. Every time I've run here, except this time, it's been a (personal record)."
Izzy Gould can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 580-5315.