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Bulls' Mitchells each earn star billing

Their lips are sealed.

Like a movie critic who has just been asked who is more talented _ Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme _ Jen and Katie Mitchell of Bloomingdale offer no clues when someone inquires about which sister might be the stronger runner. Injuries the past two seasons have kept the twins, both juniors, from competing together in many of the Bulls' most important races.

During Jen's 1993 run to the Class 5A state title in 11 minutes, 48 seconds, Katie sat out with a late-year hip injury. The roles reversed this season, with Katie placing first in seven of eight races while Jen recovered from shin splints.

The results indicate, then, that the sisters hold more in common than red hair and straight-A report cards.

For the first time since last year's Western Conference meet, they raced together at the Oct. 8 Don Bishop Invitational. Katie placed first, Jen 11th. No matter, said Jen, she was just glad to be back running on solid ground.

"I ran in the pool (during the injury)," Jen said. "But that didn't do much.

"I was supposed to run a lot, but it gets boring staring at the side of the pool wall for 30-40 minutes."

Jen's return has vaulted the Bulls back into contention for a bid to the Nov. 12 state meet in Jacksonville. Bloomingdale enters Saturday's Class 6A, District 4 meet at Walden Lakes polo ground in Plant City as the favorite to win the team title.

"(Having Jen back) makes all the difference in the team competition," Bloomingdale coach Bill Frank said. "We wouldn't have won the (Western Conference American Division) last week without them. She's pulled our team scores up a bit."

Frank said the Bulls will need strong showings from No. 3, 4 and 5 runners Denise Koenig, Donna O'Donnell and Karmyn Laverghetta to qualify for a second consecutive state meet. But nothing pads a team score more than a top finish and Katie Mitchell has provided plenty of those.

Katie's seven first-place finishes rank the highest among Hillsborough County competitors. Her run began with a top finish at the season-opening East Hillsborough Invitational on Sept. 6, and includes the winning time of 11:46 at the Western Conference meet last Thursday. Only a third-place finish at the tough USF/Leto Invitational broke her stranglehold on the top spot. Yet Katie never expected her turn at the top to last long.

"I thought Jen would be back by the second meet. I figured I'd get my day in the sun and then she'd come back," Katie said.

Instead, Katie, who started running only last year, has turned her success into a season-long episode in dominance, and is expected to unseat her sister as state champion. Jen, who finished third in the American Division in 12:21, has seen her times improve despite running with braces around both ankles, but isn't hopeful of repeating at the state meet.

"I don't see myself getting back to full strength this season," Jen said. "I'm a month-and-a-half behind everybody in training. I hope to be ready by track season."

And provided there are no more injuries, that would leave both Mitchells ready for a season in which they can finally run alongside each other.

"We haven't really competed with each other this year," Jen said. "We haven't had the chance. Maybe next season, we'll get a chance."

Class 5A, District 5: The Plant girls begin their quest for another state title today while the Robinson boys look to surprise at the meet at St. Petersburg's Crescent Lake today.

The Panthers, who have won three consecutive state championships and five district titles, are led by the trio of Rayane Lawrence, Caroline Annis and Kristen Knecht. New Port Richey Ridgewood is expected to be Plant's top challenger.

Largo is the favorite in the boys meet, but both Ridgewood and Robinson are expected to contend. The Knights have a deep team led by Tommy Vars and Van Wagner.

The county's smaller schools will compete in district meets next week.