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Their teams come first for these two standout runners

Despite competing in a sport heavily weighted toward individual performance, Renae Neale and Lee Stephens know the team is the thing.

Neale, from Zephyrhills High, and Stephens, from Land O'Lakes, are the premier runners on their respective cross country teams _ teams that will need to improve some on their finishes this season if they are to advance through the playoffs that begin Saturday with district meets.

Even if the teams do not, Neale, in the Class 4A, District 6 meet at Central, and Stephens, in the Class 5A, District 4 meet at Lakeland Jenkins, should advance as individuals.

Their status, however, hasn't stopped the seniors from making sure their interests match those of their teammates.

"My goal is to get my team to the state meet," said Stephens, the Sunshine Athletic Conference champion. "If my team is not doing well, it affects me."

Said Neale, third in the conference meet: "I'm hoping the team will qualify. I think we can do it, but we'll have to work hard and work together."

How do runners work together? You'd be surprised.

Neale has a spaghetti dinner planned tonight for the team. She's also fashioning hair ribbons in the school colors of orange and black. Then there is Neale's grandmother, who will occasionally blow an air horn as the race progresses, the distinctive sound acting as encouragement for the Zephyrhills girls.

Stephens' handiwork isn't as obvious. He said he likes to lead by example. But he also keeps tabs on his teammates' physical health, and makes sure they are focused mentally. Once they got together to watch Rocky III.

He'll train specifically with different runners, concentrating on speed work with one, distance with another. In that way, both he and his teammates benefit.

"I feel like it's my responsibility as team leader to get better times," Stephens said.

"He said from the beginning of the year his goal was to get the team to state," Land O'Lakes coach Kris Keppel said. "But he's also focused on himself. It's a little bit of both."

And that's exactly how an elite runner must think.

Though Neale and her teammates shout encouragement to each other during a race, Neale must keep her own pace. "It's better for the team if I come in third instead of fifth," she said.