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Challengers can't keep pace with Rams' Vitale

(ran PW, PS editions)

(Final edited version not provided for the electronic library. Please see microfilm.)

It's still to early to crown Ridgewood runner James Vitale as the county champion then again, is it?

Even though the season has just begun, Vitale is a perfect 2-for-2 in 2000, and he has been unrivaled. He has been so far ahead in his races that in the time it takes the second-place competitor to get to the finish line, Vitale can grab a drink and a cell phone, dial up his home to tell Mom and Dad how he finished, and still have time to shake a few hands and get back to watching the runner-up cross.

"He's beyond good," Mitchell coach Bill Napolitano said. "Everybody talks about how he's the man and they're going to catch him and he's the man they need to catch. I don't see it happening at this point."

Napolitano sheepishly admits his guilt. In the preseason, he thought _ or so he told his team _ that top Mustang Danny Sheehan would eventually run with Vitale.

"We've re-evaluated that," the coach said with a chuckle.

Vitale opened the season winning by 41 seconds over Scott Habershaw, the Land O'Lakes runner that Gators coach Kris Keppel said would give Vitale a run for his money. We're still waiting to hear the cha-ching.

At Lecanto last week against ranked teams like Citrus and Central, Vitale won by 33 seconds in 16:00, his best time this year despite missing three days of practice with the flu.

Vitale, the 1999 Pasco County Runner of the Year, is simply killing the opposition. While it is easy to point to the length of the season and the fact that those other runners are not peaking yet, it should be noted neither is Vitale.

To run with him, Ridgewood coach Glenn Cable says, opponents have to be willing to "move into a little world of pain."

In the Florida Athletic Coaches Association poll, he is ranked No. 6 in Class 3A as an individual, but Cable thinks he is better than that. Based on last year's finish at state, where Vitale struggled in muddy conditions and finished 17th after forgetting his cleated shoes, the poll does not take into account the track season and summer miles. It is there, Cable says, that Vitale has improved.

"If you look at the track season, he was head and shoulders above the competition and had a real good summer," Cable said. "That ranking, they're just basing that on last year's finish at state. I don't know that I'm paying much attention to that."

This weekend, Vitale will get his first real test of the season at the Tampa Jesuit/USF Invitational. The meet traditionally brings together the best teams in the state, and the five runners ranked ahead of Vitale should all be there, including No. 1 Matt Cianculli of Flagler Palm Coast and No. 2 Lee Yaracs of Orange Park Ridgeview.

"He'll get a challenge this week," Cable said. "I'm looking forward to watching it."

As far as the North Suncoast goes, Vitale will probably complete his season unchallenged, save for one more big test at a meet at Florida Southern. Cable is hoping his other runners like Stephen Mann, Francis Casey and Chris Vergnaud can provide additional tests at practice.

"Unfortunately what happens is kids kind of know where they belong and they accept that and don't challenge that order, so after a few races the order stays the same way," Cable said. "They get complacent and run where they think they should. I think Jim has the advantage there. He needs someone to believe they can beat him. That's what has to happen. They may not get him, but they will be better for trying."

MORE PERFECTION: Ridgewood entered the Lecanto Invitational on short notice and ended up winning three of four titles as the Ram girls won the team title behind Lizzy Leigh's individual win.

Leigh won her second race in as many tries, running a 20:18, while Lizzie Sheridan finished in 20:43. The Rams placed all five scorers in the top 21.

Though they won, the Rams are far from the team they will be at the end of the season. Meagan Keane was 21st, but her time of 23:18 is almost four minutes slower than her best time of 19:39 last season. Keane has just resumed running after two weeks off with an injury, so her times should drop significantly in the coming weeks. And freshman Michelle Kotharin, new to the sport, will also improve.

"Things could get pretty good," Cable said.

RELAYS: Gulf hosted a 5-mile relay Wednesday night, where each runner completes a different mile before handing off a baton.

The Bucs, Mitchell, Tampa Catholic, Tampa Jesuit, River Ridge, Zephyrhills, Pasco, Land O'Lakes and Hudson were all expected to compete.

"It's a fun day," Napolitano said. "It's a good break and it's different. We plan on using it as a workout."

Napolitano remains pleased with his young team in the early going. The Mustangs won their own meet last Friday behind Sheehan, Jarrod Madonna and Brandon Steiner. While the times were slow in the win, Napolitano attributed that to the wet conditions.

Backing up that claim is Gulf's Barbara Carr, the 1999 county runner of the year, who won in 22:25.

OUCH: The Mitchell girls made their debut last week in the same meet and placed second to Gulf. The Bucs and Mustangs were the only schools to have enough runners to post team scores.

But with injuries, Mustangs coach Florence Buono is struggling to do even that these days. Heading into Wednesday's 5-mile relay at Gulf, Buono was down to five runners from the eight she had two weeks ago.

"We've had some injuries that are setting me back," Buono said. "That seems to be a problem."

Nicole Guercio has remained healthy, though. The freshman was third at the Mitchell meet with a time of 24:34 and should be the top Mustang finisher all season.

USF / JESUIT

INVITATIONAL WHERE: University of South Florida

WHEN: Saturday

START TIMES: Junior varsity girls start at 4 p.m.; junior varsity boys begin at 4:40; girls open begins at 5:10 followed by the boys open at 5:50. The girls invitational will start at 6:20 and the boys invitational will start at 7.

MEET NOTES: Jesuit coach Mike Boza changed the course to be more spectator-friendly, having the runners loop through the track in the middle of the race before turning back around to finish in front of the stadium bleachers. This is one of the biggest cross country meets of the year. Among the featured local individual runners are Ridgewood's James Vitale and Lizzy Leigh, Gulf's Barbara Carr and Land O'Lakes' Scott Habershaw, who will all get their toughest challenges of the season. Vitale is currently ranked No. 6 in Class 3A, while the Rams boys team is receiving votes. Half of the 24 teams in the boys invitational race are ranked in the state top 10 in different classifications. Eight of the top 10 schools in Class 3A and the top 3 teams in Class A will be among the 23 teams in the girls race. The boys open will include 35 teams while the girls will have 30 teams. Bay area teams participating include Bloomingdale, Jesuit, Ridgewood, Keswick Christian, Citrus, Berkeley Prep, East Bay, Gaither, Shorecrest and Indian Rocks Christian.

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