Last year's version of the Bear Invitational high school cross country meet was a quaint, eight-team get-together at Central High.
"It's grown," Central coach Vic Cervizzi said.
He's not kidding.
Cervizzi said 21 schools will be represented this year, including 20 fielding boys teams and 19 with girls teams. The 2-mile girls varsity race gets under way at 9:30 a.m. Saturday, followed by the 3-mile boys varsity race at 10 a.m.
Favorites include South Sumter foreign-exchange student Maja Zajvaldova among the girls, and Hernando High senior Jody Spangler among the boys.
Even Springstead High coach Fred Hudson, whose boys will run, was amazed to hear how crowded the Central campus course will be.
"That's quite a field," he said. "I'm quite surprised _ I thought there would be about 10 teams."
Instead, nearly that many from the North Suncoast alone are entered.
Boys and girls from all three Hernando County schools (Hernando, Central and Springstead), two of Citrus County's three schools (Citrus and Crystal River) and four of Pasco County's seven (Pasco, Zephyrhills, River Ridge and Land O'Lakes) are scheduled to be there.
They're expected to be joined by several others from throughout Central Florida: Orlando-Oak Ridge, Orlando Edgewater, Maitland-Orangewood Christian, Bushnell-South Sumter, Ocala Forest, Ocala-Lake Weir, Clearwater Central Catholic, Clermont, Seminole Osceola, Tampa Jesuit's boys, St. Petersburg-Boca Ciega's boys, and the girls from Tampa-Academy of the Holy Names.
All four of the Florida High School Activities Association's size classifications will be represented.
A date change _ moving the meet a week earlier than last year to avoid a conflict with this year's Citrus Invitational _ helped attract a plentiful field.
The Central meet still conflicts with another race on the North Suncoast, the Ridgewood Invitational. But Ridgewood's smaller, more-elite guest list (including Tampa Leto, defending 2A state champion St. Petersburg-Admiral Farragut, and the 3A state champion hosts) left many area teams looking for somewhere to run Saturday.
Hernando's boys were among those invited by Ridgewood, but opted to stay closer to home.
Despite the big numbers, Cervizzi said there will be room for all at the starting line.
"We'll make room," he said. "We've already been out there, whacking and trimming."
Construction of a new football stadium at Central forced Cervizzi to move the course's starting point about 30 yards, and adjustments to accommodate the change were made throughout the course.
The manipulations were minor, though, and Cervizzi expects the course of wooded trails with a soft sand base to maintain its reputation as one of the area's slower.
The Lecanto cross country teams will run Saturday at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville, where the Panthers boys will meet the state's top-rated Class 2A team, Jacksonville-Bishop Kenny.
Earlier this week, Lecanto coach Tim Byrne anticipated the Panthers would be ranked as high as No. 3 in the Class 2A poll, and was looking forward to the challenge of Bishop Kenny. Lecanto's ranking was not confirmed as of Thursday.
"If they kick our butts, then we'll know," Byrne said. "But there probably isn't that much difference between No. 1 and No. 3."
The Lecanto boys won easily in the Citrus County Championship meet on Tuesday, led by sophomores Derek Ellis and Keith Gordon. Last Saturday, the same duo turned in top-10 performances to pace Lecanto to a first-place finish in the A-2A division of the University of Florida Invitational, which Bishop Kenny did not attend.
Byrne figures Saturday's race will give the Panthers a good indication of where they stand in the state. "Our goal is state," he said.