TAMPA — When Gaither freshman Samson Moore and Hillsborough senior Evan Jennings line up in the 110-meter high hurdle at today's Class 3A State Track and Field Championships in Jacksonville, their presence will have as much to do with the competition they faced in their own district as it will their own ability.
"Last year, the regional competition wasn't nearly as tough," Jennings said. "I really was shocked when I got to states.
"I feel like I'm better prepared this year; I know what I have to do."
Moore and Jennings reached the top echelon because they were pushed. Moore picked up fuel in practice from his own teammate, Gaither senior Paul Barrett. In meets, the pair of Cowboys battled Jennings as well as Jefferson senior Charles Booth and Steinbrenner senior Raymond Simmons.
Interestingly, only one of the five entered the season highly touted. Booth and Barrett reached state last year in the 300 hurdles, but not in the 110. Jennings didn't break the 16-second mark as a junior. Simmons didn't even compete in the event in 2011.
"He's a quiet, soft-spoken kid and he's been an unknown all year," said Baldwin.
Moore was the opposite: a known quantity from his success as Junior Olympic champion, he set the tone early, taking first at the Charles Johnson Invitational in February.
From there, various combinations of the five hurdlers battled in various meets. Barrett claimed the county championship on April 4 with a time of 14.50 seconds.
In the Class 3A, District 8 meet at Gaither, all five made the finals. Jefferson's Booth burst out of his blocks in the lead; the field caught up until Moore pulled away over the last few hurdles to finish in 14.39 seconds. Booth (14.72), Hillsborough's Jennings (14.79) and Steinbrenner's Simmons (14.80) also earned a trip to the regionals.
Barrett ran a 14.88, but finished fifth and didn't advance in the 110 finals. Still, all five ran under 15 seconds, a feat unmatched by competitors at other 3A district meets around the state.
The regional meet also reflected the strength of the competition. Moore, with a relatively slow time of 15.30 in a preliminary heat, raced from Lane 7.
In the final, judges initially thought Jennings won, but that's because they didn't see Moore outrace the field from the outside lane and post a time of 14.36, setting a personal best and breaking the Gaither school record. Coaches and reporters near the finish line quickly made the correction.
Jennings ended up with a second place medal and a career-best time of 14.48. If Booth and Simmons had placed third and fourth, Hillsborough County could have swept the regionals.
Instead, Moore and Jennings enter today's meet as favorites to earn a medal. Only Miami Northwestern's Artie Burns ran a better time in all of Class 3A regional qualifying. They will wear the jerseys of their respective schools — Gaither and Hillsborough — but given how much they benefited from strong local competition, they will carry the Hillsborough County banner.