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NO MYSTERY BEHIND HER REASON TO RUN

Land O'Lakes sophomore Alyssa Brandt enjoys doing what she's good at.

Ask her why she runs, and Alyssa Brandt appears stumped. There's no discourse on mind coaxing body into exceeding its pain threshold, no mention of the adrenaline surge that greets you at a starting line. Nothing.

For Brandt, a 15-year-old Connecticut native, the sport is not nearly that romantic. Yet.

"So many people in school ask why I run and I don't really know," said the Land O'Lakes sophomore, who never previously entered a 5-kilometer race until this past spring. "I like it because I'm good at it."

In time, Brandt probably will come to appreciate cross country's aesthetic appeal. But for now, being good is, well, good enough.

The 5-foot-2 newbie with blond hair and black nail polish is one of at least four girls with a legitimate chance of winning Saturday morning's Sunshine Athletic Conference meet at Withlacoochee River Park.

Bolstering her hopes: a 26th-place finish in the elite-girls division at the recent Little Everglades Pre-State Invitational. Brandt's 19:20 - a personal best - was the county's best, and more than a minute better than defending SAC champ Ariel Grey of Wiregrass Ranch.

"I heard Ariel was a little congested, but I think (Brandt) has the confidence now that she can win," Gators coach Kris Keppel said. "I don't think she has any doubt in her mind that she can win."

Bereft of any running background, Brandt was encouraged to try distance running by Becky Miles, one of her P.E. teachers at Pine View Middle School.

By her freshman year at Land O'Lakes, she had qualified for the Class 3A, Region 2 track meet in the 4x800-meter relay (first leg) and 1,600. Soon she took her first crack at a 5K, finishing in 21:47.

"I really didn't think I could get any better than that," she said.

That was before she logged between 250-300 miles, by Keppel's estimation, during the summer. In the first big prep race of her life, the Sept. 20 Zak Lukas Invitational, she placed fourth in 20:11, three seconds behind Grey.

A week later, she won her first race, topping the field at the 10-team Lecanto Invitational by 10 seconds (20:20). At the following month's Gator Invitational at Crews Lake Park, she placed third (20:06), four seconds behind Wesley Chapel's Jessica Furst and five seconds ahead of Grey.

"She's been pretty good mentally, having no experience," Keppel said. "I think she's got the confidence level now that she's going to push a little bit harder in that first mile so she can go with those elite runners."

FAST FACTS

Anybody's race

Unlike the boys race at Saturday's Sunshine Athletic Conference meet, where Land O'Lakes senior Felix Soto is an overwhelming favorite to win for the third consecutive time, the girls race is harder to project. Here are the five we figure have the best chance (in alphabetical order):

Alyssa Brandt,So., Land O'Lakes

First-year runner has had a resounding rookie season, winning one race and placing best among the locals at the recent Little Everglades Pre-State Invitational.

Leeann Eble, Sr., Pasco

Eble hasn't approached the sub-20-minute times she posted as a freshman and sophomore, but how do you count out a two-time conference champ?

Jessica Furst,Jr., Wesley Chapel

Last year's SAC runnerup, Furst has two runnerup finishes this season.

Ariel Grey, So., Wiregrass Ranch

The defending SAC and district champ still may not have run her best race yet this fall.

Kelli Williams, So., Mitchell

Williams, who has top-five finishes in a couple of local races, has eclipsed 21 minutes. If the crisp weather holds out, she could set a personal best Saturday.

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