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"I can't thank you enough'

I don't know what to say.

I've spent the last eight years covering local sports in Citrus County for the St. Petersburg Times. Now, all of that is about to change. Starting this week, I will be handling the Times' coverage of the University of Florida and auto racing.

Yes, Gator football, NASCAR, IndyCar and the lot.

Over the years, Citrus County and I have grown quite a bit. There was no mall in Crystal River when I got here, a fact that prompted this city kid to proclaim she would spend one year here, max, and then bolt for bigger and better things.

Well, since then I've come to understand there may be plenty of things out there bigger than Citrus County _ never before had I engaged in so many conversations in the aisles of my grocery store _ but few things are better.

People make all the difference.

Of the many things living here _ and growing to adulthood here _ have taught me, the most precious is this: No one's worth can be measured by census figures.

A football coach here helped me see that it's not necessarily how many lives you affect, but the manner in which you affect the lives you touch. It's quality, not quantity, that counts.

And so it is that my most treasured moments have been spent at sweaty, unairconditioned, high school state weightlifting meets, 55-and-over softball games, horseshoe pits, and talking to 17-year-old, 160-pound running backs.

Eight years.

My first story _ though at the time I had no idea how appropriate it was _ was about a man who had killed a shark that sneaked up on him while he was spear fishing near the mouth of the Homosassa River. My last, sadly, was about a friend and softball teammate who passed away last week.

In between, hundreds of people allowed me to invade their lives, told me their hopes, fears, goals and dreams _ all for the sake of putting out a newspaper. But to me, it was much more than that. As a journalist in a small community, I considered it my responsibility to tell the stories I thought you should know about people you might otherwise never have met.

I watched earnest people win and lose, fail and succeed.

Rarely was I untouched by the experience.

I was 21 years old when I arrived, fresh out of college and barely older than the high school athletes who were my frequent subjects. Remarkably, I have lived longer in Citrus County than any place else in my life. Next month, friends will gather to bash me mercilessly _ at my own home, no less _ when I finally turn 30.

Having said all this, I am not entirely saying "goodbye." I will still live in Inverness, at least for a while, as I assume my new work responsibilities. And for the first time in years I'll have Friday nights off.

You may still see me.

Some habits are hard to break.

Especially after eight years.

Granted, there still are mysteries in life I've yet to solve, such as how to get rid or that darned armadillo _ for good. But after my time here, I know that the answers are not nearly as valuable as the quest.

I can't thank you enough.

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