It is inarguably the most competitive conference for boys cross country in the state: the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference.
With the state's three top-ranked Class 4A teams _ No. 1 Lecanto, No. 2 Citrus and No. 3 Hernando _ joined by defending state champion Central, Saturday's conference meet at McKethan Lake Park figured to be a war.
Lending credence to that was the top trio's amazingly close finish at last weekend's Lecanto Invitational, where Hernando, Citrus and Lecanto had 52, 53 and 54 points respectively.
Saturday, it was close. It just wasn't nearly that close.
Hernando won the conference title at its home course, placing all five scoring runners in the top 11 to win the seven-team meet with 38 points, 10 better than Lecanto and 22 better than Citrus. Central took fourth with 84.
Lecanto's Charlie Lee took individual honors by finishing the 3-mile course in 15 minutes, 22 seconds. As he did last week, Lee bested Hernando's Casey Isaac for the win. Saturday, Isaac was 7 seconds behind.
Central's girls also rolled to victory, but not in nearly as dominating fashion as opposing teams have come to expect.
Though the Central girls matched the Hernando boys in placing five runners in the top 11, they finished much slower than usual and were fortuitous that Lecanto's fifth runner, who was 20th, finished well off the first four, who placed in the top six.
That was good enough for the Bears to win with 31 points to Lecanto's 37. Brooke Bastien won the individual title in 19:08, edging Lecanto's Stefanie McCullough (19:19).
Central's Heather Hamilton (19:45) was next, followed by a Lecanto trio: Melissa Schneider (19:59), Melissa Kenney (20:05) and Kim Hite (20:07).
Jenna Iannella (seventh, 20:11) and Melissa Bastien (ninth, 20:46) were Central's third and fourth, leaving Lecanto with a three-point lead through four runners. Central won the battle at No. 5, as freshman Gina Daly finished 11th in 20:46, while Lecanto's Julie Johnson was 20th in 22:48. The top 14 boys and top 14 girls received all-conference honors.
Central coach Lisa Bilodeau said her team didn't match its typical performance.
"I don't know whether they let their guard down or just weren't worried, but they did not run well today," Bilodeau said. "We didn't run (Friday), but I don't think that made much difference."
Central might respond better over the next two weeks _ district and region meets will be held at their home course.
Though the Leopards boys on average did not run considerably faster than usual on a muggy morning, their win was keyed by a much-improved performance by Paul Dysart, who finished 11th in 16:29.
"That's the best race of his career," Hernando coach Ernie Chatman said of Dysart, whose previous best was 16:48. "When I saw him with a \-mile to go, he looked like he had something left."
Hernando had its most tightly-packed top five of the year. Brian Major took third in 15:37, followed by Jon Britton (seventh, 15:57); Jay Lucado (10th, 16:24) and Dysart. That bodes well for the Leopards entering the post-season.
Citrus, meanwhile, had only one runner in the top 10, Cory Presnick (sixth, 15:50); while a pack of four Hurricanes finished 12th through 15th.