Nicole Mailloux and Deirdra Witherspoon are close friends.
They joke, laugh and practice together.
But once the Lecanto juniors approach the starting line, they're all business.
And intense rivals.
"They really gun it out," Panthers coach Dan Epstein said. "As much as they're teammates, they also want to beat each other."
Defeating either one is difficult.
They have been two of the North Suncoast's most productive runners this fall. Witherspoon was seventh and Mailloux 15th last week at the region meet in Lecanto, which included seven state-ranked teams. At the District 3 meet the previous week, Witherspoon won her first race of the season and Mailloux was eighth.
Thanks largely to these two, Lecanto is ranked No. 12 and headed to state.
"A lot of (their success) has to do with talent," Epstein said. "But they both practice hard, work hard and persevere. They put in work day in and day out. Talent helps, but you've got to come to practice every day."
Mailloux and Witherspoon joined the team as ninth-graders and made immediate contributions. A year later, they were key to Lecanto's ninth-place finish at state.
"I'm a lot better than I used to be," Witherspoon said. "I know what to expect and my training is different. I try harder. My freshman year I was running just to run."
Their success starts at practice.
Each is attentive, willing to learn and, perhaps most important, pushes the other.
"At practice we stay together at the same pace," Mailloux said. "We give each other a lot of motivation. Practice is fun."
Witherspoon is considered Lecanto's top runner, but Mailloux is not far behind. Witherspoon's best time in 2002 is 20 minutes, 18 seconds. Mailloux's best is 20:38. Witherspoon has posted team-best times in each of the past two meets, but trails Mailloux by one for the squad lead in that category.
Epstein predicts bright futures for both.
"They can only get faster," Epstein said. "We're going to try to push them more in the weight room next year and get their strength up. I honestly believe both can break 20 (minutes). We'll push them and add speed work, so I think their times will drop."
At state, Witherspoon is shooting for a top-20 finish (she was 28th in 2001). Mailloux, 88th last year, also hopes to improve.
"I want to know I gave it everything I had and feel that I finished the season on a really good note," Mailloux said.
Before and after races, Mailloux and Witherspoon are the other's biggest supporter. But when the whistle blows Saturday, expect their competitive juices to flow.
"It's every man for himself," Witherspoon said. "But if she were to pass me, I'd rather it be her than somebody else. It's a friendly rivalry."
Keith Niebuhr can be reached at 860-7337 or online at niebuhrsptimes.com.