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Two coaches, two approaches for success

Bobby Ennis sat on the curb, peering out at the driveway through dark sunglasses, keeping an eye out for his boys. On his head rested a crimson cap emblazoned with the words "Long Red Row."

Across town, Roy Harrison stretched out his limbs, which emerged from tank top and shorts. His girls would be there soon, and he, like Ennis, was dressed for the part.

Success as a cross-country coach has more than one script, as Leto's Ennis and Plant's Harrison have shown since before running shoes cost more than a VCR. Harrison, the distance runner, and Ennis, who keeps a healthy distance from running, have combined for 12 state championships and nearly four decades of coaching experience, and they don't appear to be losing a step to the competition.

"I have a real appreciation for distance runners because it's something I can't do," said Ennis, a self-described "mediocre jumper" on Florida's track-and-field team in the 1970s.

"Once, I ran a marathon, because I wanted to see what it was like. It was absolutely the worst experience of my life. I wouldn't do it again if somebody held a gun to my head or offered me a million dollars. It was horrible."

Harrison shared Ennis' opinion on running until a college professor threw down the gauntlet.

"All the PE majors would do a 3-mile time trial each semester, and I would just show up that day and do it," said Harrison, a 1977 graduate of South Florida. "My professor bet me a steak dinner that I couldn't finish an 8.7-mile road race without stopping. I did it, and I started racing after that."

Different perspectives spawned similar philosophies about the cultivation of cross-country dynasties. While the differences are obvious, the similarities are bountiful.

Like sponges, Harrison and Ennis soaked up volumes of information as young coaches. They read a bevy of of books, went to countless clinics and talked to everyone who knew anything about the sport. Ironically, Ennis, a Tampa native, is a Plant graduate and often wears a New York Yankees cap, which would seem more apropos of Harrison, a New York native.

In Harrison's 16 seasons as girls coach, Plant has won five state championships (1991-1995). In Ennis' 19 seasons, the Falcons, nicknamed the Long Red Row after defeating Jefferson in a race in 1979, have won seven titles.

Almost as amazing as 5A Plant's and 6A Leto's success is the lack of serious challengers around them in the upper classifications. Not since Largo coach Brent Haley retired in 1992 _ and took his 10 state championships with him _ has there been an equally formidable program in the area.

Both teams were upset at last year's state meet, Plant by St. Augustine Nease and Leto by Lauderdale Lakes Boyd Anderson. As district competition approaches, it appears that once again Plant and Leto's only competition will come from afar.

So just why are the Panthers and Falcons playing in leagues of their own?

Race less, race well

There's the less is more approach to racing. Ennis, 45, and Harrison, 41, don't believe you can race your athletes into shape. For them, practice is how champions are made.

Plant runs an average of 6 miles per day, while Leto goes about 7. Keep in mind that the athletes race just 3 miles, but that the pace of a meet is much quicker and more taxing.

"You can't over-race them," said Harrison, who still has plenty of New York in his voice. "I know some coaches who think that racing is their speed work, and they race every week. You can't do that, the kids get burned out."

So far this season, Plant's varsity has raced, and won, five times. Most of the Panthers' competitors in the area have run nine or 10 races. Leto has competed seven times, two or three fewer races than many boys teams. Both teams rarely compete in Hillsborough County, opting for larger, more challenging races around the state.

"I think you only have so many good races in you," said Haley, from whom Ennis says he learned everything he knows.

"You really break down the body during a race," said Bob Braman, South Florida's cross-country coach since 1985.

"You've got to race less to race well."

Harrison and Ennis know how to get the most out of what they have. Harrison takes pride in getting his runners to peak by the end of the year. Ennis differs there, preferring to have his runners reach a more consistent level. Either way, both try to keep training challenging, but fun.

"I think you have to do a lot of crazy things," said Ennis, who talks in a slow, relaxed manner. "You've got to have fun practices and experiment. The fact that I'm not a distance runner I just couldn't imagine somebody wanting to go out and run straight 7 miles every day."

Harrison wins his athletes' favor by running with them.

"He knows what we're going through," said Caroline Annis, Plant's top runner and a three-time state champion. "He knows the pain we're enduring."

Perhaps most important, at Plant and Leto, being a cross-country runner is a year-round commitment.

"They've been known for working during the summer for years," said Glenn Cable, whose Ridgewood team will face Plant at Saturday's Class 5A, District 4 race in Lakeland. "Yu have to log the miles."

Prolific traditions

Both Ennis and Harrison are salesmen. It helps that Ennis and Harrison are physical education teachers at their schools and can promote the sport through that means.

But it goes beyond that. For instance, Ennis made sure people heard about the Long Red Row, whether they wanted to or not.

"We even put a Long Red Row bumper sticker on the principal's car," Ennis said.

Harrison helped build his program's foundation by starting as a teacher and coach at Wilson Middle School, which feeds into Plant. At one point he coached track at Wilson and cross country at Plant, allowing him to coach the same girls for six years.

"I got 'em in seventh grade," Harrison said. "That's basically how I built my program."

Of course, the best selling point is winning. A prolific tradition helps keep the programs infused with new blood, and plenty of it.

Plant has 37 girls divided between the varsity and junior varsity teams, while Leto has 24 boys split between the two. Most agree that a large squad promotes more competitive practices, in turn leading to better races.

"Kids are beating down the door to be out there," said Bill Frank, who coaches Bloomingdale's boys and girls. "Once you start winning, you promote people to come out."

At Leto, winning also helps attract transfers. The Falcons' roster was bolstered this season by the addition of Sean Gilman, who ran for Bloomingdale last season.

And then there's the pressure, the good kind, that helps keep the tradition alive.

"If you get a program going with a proud tradition, kids don't want to be the ones who break that tradition," Haley said.

So what will it take for an area team to overcome that tradition and defeat the Panthers or the Falcons?

"Obviously, preparation will have to be a big part of it," said Cable, whose boys won state in 1991 and girls were runner-up in 1994. "You have to believe you can do it. You can't be in awe of them. What good does that do?

"Everybody is beatable."

If only, at least for now, from a distance.

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