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Cummings turns front-runner

Eric Cummings has been a team runner all season, but during the Gulf Coast Conference championships Saturday at McKethan Lake Park he stepped up for some individual glory. Springstead High's Cummings has run just behind senior teammate Willie Hill and battled Alex Martinez of Ridgewood at high school cross-country meets throughout the season.

"It's great competition among those three," Springstead coach Fred Hudson said before the GCC meet. "On any given day, any one of these kids can come off and win."

Cummings proved that Saturday.

The trio has been the class of boys runners on the North Suncoast this year, though Cummings had not managed to claim an individual title before the conference meet.

That changed when the Springstead junior covered the three-mile McKethan Lake course in a school-record time of 15 minutes, 18 seconds.

Martinez, Cummings and Hill charged to the front early, with Martinez leading.

Hill, suffering from dehydration, was the first to drop behind. He finished third in 15:55, holding off a late charge by teammate and fourth-place finisher Don Rapuzzi.

Cummings said he began to pull away from Martinez at the two-mile mark. He increased his lead over the last half-mile of the race, winning by nine seconds.

Cummings has been more concerned with Springstead's team showings this season, but he said he liked the feeling of running in front Saturday.

"It's a lot easier than trying to catch someone," he said.

Seeing three of his Eagles place among the top four certainly had to please Hudson, whose team has grown close over the course of the year.

"I'm sure glad to have that camaraderie," said Hudson, whose Eagles this season have recorded team victories at the prestigious University of Florida High School Invitational in Gainesville along with the Hernando, Gulf, Springstead, Central and Citrus invitationals.

Cummings placed 10th individually, 16 seconds ahead of Hill in Gainesville. Hill's titles this season include the Citrus, Springstead and Hernando invitationals. Martinez has won the Gulf and Ridgewood invitationals and the Pasco County championship meet, in which Springstead did not compete.

Springstead's top five runners earned all-GCC recognition by placing among the top 14 at the conference meet. The Eagles beat second-place Ridgewood 29-46 in the 12-team meet.

Springstead's Sheldon Nugara was eighth in 16:03, trailing a pack that included Damian Wilson of Gulf (fifth in 15:58) and two Hernando High teammates, Jeremy Poe and Jody Spangler (both 15:59 and 16:00, respectively). Chad Atkinson of Springstead was 13th in 16:26.

Hudson may have been as pleased by the performance of his No.

6 runner, Clint Daniel, as he was that of the top five. Daniel sprinted home in 16:39, five seconds shy of the final all-conference slot that went to Matt Leigh of Ridgewood.

Daniel's frustration over the 15th-place showing was evidenced by his reaction _ a stomp and yell of agony _ upon receiving the stick that indicated his place.

But he might take consolation in having shown that the Eagles are developing some depth, a concern of Hudson's throughout the season. Only the top five score, but up to seven can run. The finish of No.

6 runners is used to break ties.

Hudson has been searching for a sixth runner to emerge before the postseason and provide insurance should one of the top five falter, so Daniel's timing could prove impeccable.

Springstead's boys, seven other GCC teams and 11 teams from Hillsborough and Pinellas counties are scheduled to compete Saturday in the Class 3A, District 5 meet at Tampa's Lake Park. Boys and girls races will be held.

The top six teams and top five individuals qualify for the Region 3A-III meet, scheduled Nov. 10 at McKethan Lake Park. Springstead's boys are favored to advance to the state championship meet, scheduled Nov. 17 at Florida Community College's north campus in Jacksonville. The top four teams and first five individuals from the region meet qualify to run in Jacksonville.

_ Correspondent Rick Gershman contributed to this report.