LAND O'LAKES — In nearly every race over the past two years — be it in spring or September, on a rubberized track or rural pathway — Land O'Lakes junior Matt Schwartz has had the same view.
The neck of senior teammate Felix Soto.
If Soto, a USF signee and one of the greatest distance specialists in local history, didn't exist, Schwartz likely would have a heap of conference and district titles in his collection. As it stands, this diminutive honor student has spent his career establishing himself as a solid runner only to find an "up" attached at the end.
And frankly, that makes Schwartz see red.
"There's a lot of second-place finishes," he said, "which is okay because second place gets the red ribbons, which is my favorite color."
Entering Wednesday's Class 3A, District 7 track and field meet at Central, Schwartz (5-foot-8, 140 pounds) is a favorite to finish second in the 1,600- and 3,200-meter races. That will qualify him for the following week's Region 2 meet, where he will likely skip the 1,600 in order to focus on earning a runnerup finish in the 3,200.
For now, Schwartz can live with that.
"We make jokes about it a lot," said Schwartz, who could pick up at least one blue ribbon Wednesday as a member of the Gators' 4x800 relay. "I'm used to kind of running behind (Soto), but I'm okay with it. It has some advantages. It takes some of the pressure off because all the focus is on him most of the time."
An aspiring engineer who boasts a 1,400 SAT score and weighted grade point average of 4.37, Schwartz began running in earnest shortly after arriving at Pine View Middle School from Orlando in eighth grade. He tried out for football at Land O'Lakes as a freshman but didn't make the team, paving the way for a highly successful — and underrated — running career.
"He's probably the hardest runner out here that I know of in track and field," said Soto, who enters Wednesday's meet with six career district titles (four individual, two relay).
"Maybe he doesn't stay up with me in the workouts, but he stays close enough to where I say, 'He's close, I'd better get farther.' … If I didn't have him, it would be hard for me to come out here and do what I do in the workouts."
Count Soto among those who project a breakthrough year for Schwartz in the 2009-10 campaign. Fellow juniors Bruce Federico of Nature Coast and Ryan Pulsifer of Wiregrass Ranch are among those who will challenge Schwartz for North Suncoast distance-running supremacy next year.
But after a scrapbook teeming with reds, Schwartz seems poised for a case of blues.
"I have some mixed feelings (about next year)," Schwartz said. "It's like finally I can maybe be first in some races, but the team score is going to drop significantly. Felix scored 30 points in the (2009) conference meet in track — on his own. The entire team only scored (112). … That's a big loss, but it is exciting to be up near the top. I am excited about that."