Mitchell's Brandon Steiner has not raced in a month but has always assured his teammates he would be there when it counted.
Quite frankly, his teammates were not so sure.
"I don't think anyone believed him," Jeff Masterson said.
Call Masterson and the Mustangs converted. Steiner returned with a flourish Saturday, finishing 16th, but more important, giving Mitchell a huge boost of confidence heading into next week's state meet.
The Mustangs won the Region 3 title at Taylor Park with 46 points, a whopping 66-point advantage over distant second-place Naples.
Masterson was again an easy winner, taking first in 16 minutes, 12 seconds, on a course slowed by steady rain. Danny Sheehan, fighting a sore back, was third in 16:35 and John Tuccio was 10th in 16:54.
But when asked what the key was Saturday, the entire Mitchell side agreed.
"Two words: Brandon Steiner," Sheehan said. "Big time. He's my hero."
Masterson heaped on more praise, calling him "the runner of race, the year, the century."
A bit of hyperbole, but there was no slowing the Mustangs or their confidence after the victory.
"Everybody just ran so well," coach Bill Napolitano said. "I'm just so freaking happy."
Things are supposed to get harder as the postseason progresses, but for Mitchell it looked easier than last week when it won the district meet.
The Mustangs' average time was 16:52, while the next five teams were all between 17:33 and 17:35. And Mitchell was the only team to place two runners in the top 10, let alone three.
And a sign of the team's depth, all seven runners finished before 10 of the 13 other teams' fifth scorer came across the line.
"Now we really feel we're a decent team," Napolitano said. "This is a great confidence booster for us."
The only Pasco County girl to advance to state was Land O'Lakes' Danielle Shimer, who ran what Gator coach Kris Keppel called a "perfect race."
Shimer was sixth with a time of 20:24.
Mitchell's Nicole Guercio failed in her bid for a third consecutive trip to state, finishing 19th. (Only the top 15 individuals advance). River Ridge's tandem of Sam Jacobsen and Danielle Coyle were hoping for a return trip to state as well, but finished 24th and 34th.
Land O'Lakes' Steve Bell, who was fourth at the region meet last week and expected to advance, did not. Fighting cramps in the final mile, Bell was reduced to walking part of the way and was 76th.