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Goofiness runs in this family

They make it look like fun, which is no easy task considering the sport.

They do flips during practice. They splash through sprinklers and puddles. They love it when it rains.

Even after long training sessions and races that make them feel completely spent, they laugh and smile.

The Ridgewood girls cross-country team, the county's best, has transformed looseness into an art form, making grueling 6-mile runs in the afternoon heat and humidity actually seem kind of, well, fun.

"We're a little goofy," said Stacey Jones. "Thinking you have to run 6 miles isn't fun, so we try to make it fun."

Fun is good, then, because the Rams are the state's No. 2-ranked Class 5A team heading into tonight's district meet at Crescent Lake Park in St. Petersburg.

The NBA may have the Shaq Attack, but cross country has Ridgewood's Pack Attack, the best county hope for a state title in any sport.

Winning has been as simple as 2-3-4 _ the typical finishes this season for Jones, Charlotte Robson and Stephanie Barndollar. And when the top three set the table, No. 4 and 5 runners Tara Ramirez and Alexis Rodriguez fill the plate, almost always finishing in the top 10 and ensuring wins.

The Rams' key to success, oddly enough, might just be the goofiness. Their practice and post-race antics have provided the perfect working atmosphere and produced an extremely tight-knit unit.

"If you come out to practice every day thinking run, run, run, it gets boring," said Ramirez. "If you come out and think, "Oh my god, it's hot out and my legs hurt,' you'll run like garbage. So we make fools of ourselves. We make it fun. That's why we're so good and so close.

"I'm never going to have friends like I do here. Even in college, it'll never be like this."

It is a delicate balance, fun and work. Too much of the former, and you can find yourself off a team.

"They are able to keep that balance, that's the great thing," said coach Glenn Cable, who has guided the Rams to the state meet each of the past four years. "They run hard in practice. They know when they need to work. But they have that attitude that, "Hey, I'm gonna run hard, but when I'm through, I'm going to go jump in that puddle over there.'

"They are high-energy kids. They are playful, high-spirited, extremely verbal. And they can get a little goofy. But always, with that nice balance."

Jones, fully recovered from a bout with mononucleosis last spring that caused her to miss the state track meet, is the fastest and tiniest of the group, with a slew of second-place finishes behind River Ridge's Jacki Waller to her credit. Her time of 11:57 at last week's Sunshine Athletic Conference meet is second best on the North Suncoast this year.

Then, in order, almost every time, Robson and Barndollar cross the line. Five times this season the trio has finished 2-3-4.

"We like that," said Jones, "knowing the three of us are right with each other. We didn't plan it intentionally or anything, but I guess it's kind of become a pride thing."

Ramirez, who along with Barndollar entertains with flips during practice, and Rodriguez, the quiet sophomore, round out the top five. Another sophomore, Chantel Titus, is right behind.

Rodriguez helps explain the success of the Ridgewood program, which unlike most other county schools has no trouble fielding sizable varsity and junior varsity teams every year:

"They have so-o-o-o much energy," she said increduously. "I was surprised. They told me before I came out that it was easy and fun. Well, it's not easy, but it is fun. And I love the girls. If it wasn't for the girls on the team, I wouldn't be out here."