TAMPA — In Kayla Kennedy's mind she had to make a choice: run or play soccer. To reach her potential in either one, the Plant junior simply couldn't continue doing both.
"It was too hard to balance everything," Kennedy said.
In soccer, Kennedy played for Plant (as a backup midfielder) and a local club team. As a runner, she placed 37th last fall while helping lead the Panthers to a fifth-place finish at the Class 3A state cross country meet.
"I talked to her and her parents about it," Plant cross country coach Roy Harrison said. "I said she was showing a lot of talent in cross country, but that it was her decision about what she wanted to do."
Ultimately, Kennedy chose cross country, dropping soccer for good in August.
"I figured I had a better chance of getting a scholarship than I did for soccer," Kennedy said.
It looks like Kennedy made a smart decision. This fall, she has been one of the county's most consistent runners, and recently started to show signs that she could someday become one of the state's best performers. Kennedy, who has a personal best of 19 minutes, 18 seconds, enters Saturday's state meet in Dade City after putting together the best three-meet stretch in her career (she won the county meet, was second at districts and fourth at regionals).
Dropping soccer and its rigorous practice schedule has "made a lot of difference," Kennedy said. "My legs haven't been as tired."
Harrison, who has coached eight state championship squads, thinks Kennedy is just beginning to scratch the surface of her potential.
"She's not even close to what she's capable of," Harrison said. "If she puts in 30 to 40 miles a week next summer, she has the ability to be the state champion (in 2009).
"She has tons of natural speed. And she has the perfect stride. The question is whether she's tough enough to prepare."
With her recent success, Kennedy's confidence has swelled. And the hope is that a solid showing Saturday could give her the mental boost she needs to become an elite performer.
"If she can get in the top 10 or get close to that, or just have a great race, it could be a major step in developing mental strength," Harrison said. "She has the natural ability physical wise. But running is 80 percent mental."