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Mustangs' last stand

Finally, it's time.

"It's the race I've been thinking about since I started running," Mitchell senior Danny Sheehan said.

It is the Class 3A state meet Saturday at the Ed Radice Sports Complex in Tampa.

For all of the success the Mustangs have achieved this season _ winning a second consecutive Sunshine Athletic Conference title, the UF Invitational, district and region titles _ it has all been a warmup for this.

Mitchell will be a rare underdog Saturday when it takes on Flagler Palm Coast,'s top-ranked 3A team, in what should be an exciting battle for the title.

"I've waited for this meet my entire career," Mustangs coach Bill Napolitano said. "This is the best chance that I've ever had, and this is the best team that I've ever had in all my years."

To win Saturday, to defeat a Bulldogs team that Napolitano himself said is superior, the Mustangs must perform flawlessly.

From the No. 1 runner to No. 5, there is no margin for error. Napolitano is counting on taking advantage of any Flagler Palm Coast miscues to steal the state title. That's how close these two are.

"We've been against them twice, and they beat us twice," Napolitano said. "I see them as being just a little better than us. But if we run the way we've been running, and if they don't have a good meet, one runner is all it takes to drop out of pace for those guys."

To win, Napolitano said, his top five runners must battle, mano a mano, Flagler Palm Coast's top five.

That means Mitchell No. 1 Jeff Masterson must give FPC's Steve Hassen,'s No. 2-ranked runner, the race of his life. It means Mitchell No. 2 Sheehan, No. 8 in 3A, must dominate Clint Bentley. It means No. 3 John Tuccio must stay consistent and right with Brandon Anderson. It means Brandon Steiner, who ran his first race in weeks at the region meet, must battle Bryan Anderson. It means David Stricsek and Jorge Luna must close strong, either finishing ahead of John Alter.

"Everybody is a factor at their position," Napolitano said. "Everybody has to match themselves against an individual person and hold them off.

"We can't stay with these packs or close to these packs. We have to beat these packs. It's going to come down to a handful of places."

Mitchell has lost the last two head-to-head meetings, but neither team was at full strength. Steiner has returned to form despite a painful right Iliotibial Band (or ITB Band).

Another concern is the lack of competition Mitchell has faced. The conference, district and region meets were almost coronations. With the exception of a handful of major meets, Mitchell has not been consistently tested this season _ or has it?

"We haven't been challenged as a team," Napolitano said. "But we have been challenged as individuals. There are people in those races who have beaten our guys."

Masterson faces the greatest test of his two-year career. Not only must be battle Vasquez but the top-ranked runner, Ocala Vanguard's Steven Hassen, as well.

Tuccio said it's hard to believe that the state title is within reach.

"It gets me kind of nervous and excited at the same time," he said. "It's weird. Everything you've done is perfect if you can win a state title."