Springstead High's boys cross-country team has been leading the local pack all season. But a young Ridgewood squad surprisingly is closing the gap, running on a full tank of enthusiasm and desire. "They're real ambitious," Rams coach Glenn Cable said about his runners. "I don't think anybody should _ or does _ take them for granted."
Ridgewood's top five runners include two juniors (Alex Martinez and Mike Pratt), two sophomores (Matt Leigh and John Chambers) and a freshman (Jeremy Sample). Only Martinez and Pratt ran for the varsity team last year.
"I'm pleasantly amazed at what the young kids have been doing," Cable said. "All of them are running better than their age would dictate. They've risen to the level of competition."
The Rams, ranked No. 9 in an unofficial Class 3A state poll two weeks ago, are led by Martinez. He ran a personal best of 15 minutes, 25 seconds Saturday at the Citrus Invitational in Inverness. It was good for second place, two seconds behind winner Willie Hill of Springstead.
"Alex is about as solid as a rock," Cable said. "He's mentally solid, physically solid and competitively solid. He's got good concentration, good speed, good endurance and tremendous motivation. He's tough."
While Martinez is clearly Ridgewood's No. 1 runner, the order of finish of the next four Rams is as predictable as the stock market.
"We haven't had the same runner finish second in back-to-back meets," Cable said.
The personal best times of Ridgewood's No. 2-5 runners are within 16 seconds of each other: Pratt (16:16), Chambers (16:17), Leigh (16:25) and Sample (16:32).
"We're a team," Pratt said. "We all are so close, we really push each other."
Pratt, an all-Gulf Coast Conference runner last year, got off to a slow start this year because of a tonsillectomy that sidelined him for the season's first three weeks. But he said he has cut his time almost two minutes in the last two weeks and is "starting to get back in stride."
"This is the time we need him," said Cable, whose team will compete in the GCC meet at 9 a.m. Saturday at McKethan Lake Park, north of Brooksville. Then the following week the Rams will race in the Class 3A, District 5 meet, where the top six teams in the 19-team field will advance to the Region III meet.
Ridgewood has won two races this season, the Pasco County meet Oct. 17 and its own Ram Invitational Sept. 29. In the Ram Invitational, Ridgewood stunned Springstead 41-42.
Cable's goals for Ridgewood have continued to rise as his runners' times have continued to fall.
"I'd like to see us make the states," he said.
In 1988, Cable's second year as the Rams coach, Ridgewood finished sixth in the state. That team, led by Russell Marretta, had four seniors and junior John Steele, who made it to the state meet on his individual merit last year.
"Man for man, on a time basis at each position, this team (1990) is faster than that team," Cable said. "This group has the potential to have the best team I've had talent-wise. And they are so hard-working."
Martinez, winner of three races this season, said it helps to have the coach run with the team. "Coach is better than all of us," Martinez said, with Pratt nodding in agreement.
The other Ridgewood runners say it also is beneficial to run with Martinez.
"Alex keeps us going," said Patrick Browning, a member of the junior varsity squad. "He's very encouraging."
Martinez said it's like running as a group in the Marine Corps. "It takes a little bit of extra energy to yell, but it keeps everybody pumped."
Leigh and Chambers keep the team in stitches with their practical pranks _ with such props as shaving cream, honey and athletic tape.
And Sample, the freshman, was the team's "find," Cable said.