By winning the 3,200 meters at the Class 3A state track meet last season, Mitchell's Jeff Masterson watched the bitter endings of previous years melt away.
Fulfilling the promise he showed throughout his career, Masterson wanted to take the next step and win a state title in cross country, something that has eluded him the past three years.
The senior started on that task Saturday by participating in the Race of Champions portion of the flrunners.com Invitational at Ed Radice Park in Tampa, the site of the state meet.
Running on the same course where he finished 10th at state in 2003 and third in 2002, Masterson was familiar with the layout and hoped knowledge would give him an edge.
The only problem was the conditions were different.
The quagmire that passed for the course at Saturday's meet would have been better suited for tug-of-war or mud wrestling.
That meant Masterson had other obstacles to overcome, such as ankle-deep puddles and raindrenched hills.
Slopping over the muddy course took its toll on Masterson as he faded and placed fifth with a time of 15:54.31.
"It was a little disappointing," Masterson said Saturday. "When the group in front of me took off, I didn't go with them and they pulled away. That's something I've got to learn from in the future."
Masterson didn't have much competition before facing the elite field. He planned on running at the Gator Invitational Sept. 18 at the University of Florida but the course was too water-logged after Hurricane Frances swept through Gainesville.
"I think that hurt not being able to run at the University of Florida," coach Jacki Wachtel said. "We were planning on using that race to prepare for the flrunners.com meet."
Though Masterson fell short of last season's personal record of 15:27, Wachtel isn't fretting.
"I didn't think (Masterson) had a bad day (at flrunners.com)," Wachtel said. "It just wasn't his best day. I know he wanted to win, but it's in the middle of the season and I try to make sure my runners have their best race at state. There's time."
Masterson will try to defend his title at the Zak Lucas Invitational at Hernando High on Saturday.
BOGGED DOWN: Masterson was not the only runner who had a difficult time navigating the slow, muddy Ed Radice course.
Wesley Chapel's Stephanie Amerman, one of the top girls runners in the county, finished seventh in the flrunners.com Invitational race in 20:20.
"I hoped to break 20 minutes at the meet, but I didn't come close," Amerman said. "It was really muddy. I was expecting it to be the same course as state, but it was obviously a little rougher this time. All the other races had destroyed the course.
"It was slow, but I'm not too worried. I'll peak by state."
_ BOB PUTNAM, Times Staff Writer