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Panther girls on prowl too

The Lecanto High cross-country team is looking forward to starting the post-season Saturday morning and getting one step closer to the Class 4A state meet.

The boys team, you ask? Oh sure. But the girls team has the same thing in mind. Just not as many people know it.

The Lecanto boys team grabbed headlines and turned heads everywhere it went this season. It always won. It defended its No. 1 state ranking against last year's state champion. It even made the pages of USA Today as the nation's 21st-ranked high school team.

The Panthers' goal with three races left in the season is to win a state title, nothing less.

But the girls team _ which has toiled through injury and the loss of key runners _ also is a strong candidate for state honors, finally starting to emerge from the long shadow cast by the perennially powerful boys team.

"Last year we were in their shadow," said sophomore Melissa Crowley, who may not run this weekend because of a knee injury. "But this year, we're our own team."

Coach Deirdre Byrne, married to boys coach Tim Byrne, agrees.

"As a matter of fact, I've had a lot of people come up to me this season and say how well the girls are doing too," Deirdre Byrne said. "Word is getting around that Lecanto is putting out some good runners."

Good enough for both the boys and girls squads to be the defending champions at Saturday's 4A-District 3 meet at Whispering Pines Park. The 2-mile girls race starts at 10 a.m.; the 3-mile boys race at 10:30 a.m.

The boys, of course, will be hard-pressed not to score the minimum of 15 points, as they did at last weekend's Gulf Coast Conference meet. The girls, while still a meet favorite, will be happy to be among the top six teams that advance to next week's 4A-Region II meet. The top four teams there go on to the state meet.

"We've been thinking a lot about it, about positive attitudes," said sophomore Cindy Ketchum, one of Lecanto's top two runners along with senior Emilie Ruetenik. "We can do anything we want to do."

While the boys ran to a disappointing third-place finish last year at the state meet _ the Panthers were the pre-meet favorites and ranked No. 1 in the state _ the girls team made its first-ever appearance and reveled in its ninth-place finish.

This year, a return trip for the boys is a virtual lock. They have not lost a meet this season, including a head-to-head confrontation with nemesis Jacksonville Bishop Kenny, which beat Lecanto in the state meet last year.

But the girls, who say comparisons to the boys team are unfair, are looking forward to the challenges the district and region meets will bring as they try to earn a second consecutive berth.

A series of second- and third-place finishes at large meets to schools in bigger classifications _ though not as flashy as the boys' unbeaten streak _ will help them get there, team members agree.

"It pushes us a lot harder when we run against bigger areas," Tanya Jones said. "And we've gone against all 5A and 6A schools."

That, after all, is how the boys team got to its lofty position when, two years ago, the Panthers made their first state-meet appearance with one senior and a host of underclassmen.

"You really can't compare us to them," Ruetenik said. "We want to be district champions, but we want to run for ourselves, not because we want to keep up with the boys."

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