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COMFY AS OLD PAIR OF SHOES

Wharton is getting lots of mileage out of Wes Newton, the only coach the school has had.

The coach with the whistle, gray beard and matching ponytail pulls his wife's 2002 Jetta to within feet of the Wharton High concession stand, where dozens of boys and girls runners await.

Wes and Laura Newton have put 205,000 miles on this vehicle, a six-figure testament to countless commutes from their Brooksville home to New Tampa. Newton, 60, is Wharton's boys and girls track coach and the only cross country coach the school has ever known. In a booming section of town that seems to sprout a new strip mall each month, Newton's as much of a landmark as there is.

"He's like a grandfather to me," Wildcats senior Erin Bailey said.

Hence the brief panic that prevailed over the team earlier this year. A chemistry teacher with 38 years in the school system, Newton had exhausted his eligibility in the state's deferred retirement option program. Wharton administrators told him he could keep coaching forever, but would he?

"I was actually told that I had to retire (in October 2008)," Newton recalled, "and I didn't know anything until after track season, like in May, that there may be an inkling of fact that I may be re-hired (as a teacher)."

This year, Newton's back in the chemistry classroom, albeit on a beginning teacher's salary. The result: more miles for the Jetta and his sexagenarian legs. Without Newton, one of the best distance-running minds around, Wharton's girls would've been a force.

With him, the 'Cats, who move to Class 4A after placing fourth at last fall's 3A meet, clearly are the team to beat in Hillsborough County.

"I probably would've coached cross country (had retirement been forced) only because of the allegiance I have for these kids," he says, "and I didn't want to see them left high and dry."

Newton, who has an astounding 35 girls on his team, lost No.1 runner Alyssa Franks from last year's 3A, Region 2 championship squad, but returns the other top five finishers from that race. Among them are Bailey and junior Abby Ritter, who finished 25th and 57th, respectively, at state.

For now, Newton says, Ritter has overtaken Bailey for the team's No. 1 spot. "If you had asked me the same question last year, I'd say no, Erin's much better than Abby," he said. "Abby's coming into her own right now. Erin's been there since she was a ninth-grader ... and that's a hard bill to fulfill for four years."

Newton expects to watch the pair flip-flop spots all year, with an eye on his other evolving runners. For the 13th consecutive year at Wharton, he's back in his element. Retirement, for now, has been supplanted by contentment.

"I'm happy at what I do," he said. "I'm healthy, I get to come out and run with the kids and stay young through them."

* * *

Top five teams

1. Wharton:Arguably the deepest team in the county, with tons of state-meet experience.

2. Plant:The county's most storied program (boys or girls) returns senior Kayla Kennedy and Lizzie Goodwin, both of whom were top-50 placers at last season's 3A meet.

3. King:Flrunners.com has the Lions 14th in the 3A preseason rankings, and with good reason. The Lions' top five finishers at last year's 3A, Region 2 meet - where they placed seventh - were underclassmen.

4. Newsome:Last year's 3A, Region 2 runnersup suffered some offseason attrition but return several promising runners.

5. Academy of the Holy Names: The best small-school program around.

Five runners to watch

Kayla Kennedy, Sr., Plant:The top runner on a potentially strong Panthers squad placed fourth at last season's 3A, Region 2 meet.

Lizzie Goodwin, Jr., Plant: Top-50 state placer in 2008 could overtake Kennedy as team's top runner.

Sydney Coates, Sr., Newsome:Top-15 region placer eclipsed 20-minute mark at 3A state meet for top-50 finish.

Erin Bailey, Sr., Wharton: Arguably the area's most courageous runner, Bailey fought through a monitored blood-pressure condition to finish 25th at last season's 3A meet.

Abby Ritter, Jr., Wharton:Has emerged as the Wildcats' No. 1 runner this summer. "If Abby's anywhere near the leader at the finish line, Abby will kill herself to try to catch that person," coach Wes Newton said.

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