Fittingly enough, Arthur Casey and Franck Charles will have to climb a medal stand should they cap their improbable prep careers with state titles Saturday.
Why, after all, should the final steps be any less vertical than the previous ones, which have been mostly uphill? Only three springs ago, you were more likely to find a Blake High bumper sticker in the Middleton parking lot than Casey or Charles in a distance race.
Casey didn't have the grades. Charles didn't have the gumption.
"I came out there for one week (as a freshman)," said Charles, who was born in Haiti. "I said, 'It's too hot. I quit.'"
Saturday, the early-evening sun no longer will represent a heat lamp. For both, it could be a spotlight. The two enter the Class 2A state meet as reigning county, district and region champions in their respective specialty events.
Charles (5-foot-6, 125 pounds) is seeded first in the 1,600 meters; Casey (5-8, 125) is fourth in the 800.
Credit distance coach Daniel Dean and coach Joe Dixon with providing the initial illumination. As recently as 2008, Middleton essentially had no viable distance program; no Tigers runner even competed in the Class 2A, District 5 cross country meet that fall.
Charles, who lives with a single mom and serves as a surrogate dad to three younger siblings, was running with what he acknowledged as a "rough" crowd, and playing hoops at the HOPE Center, a spiritually based community center across the street from Middleton.
Dean, who owns the center, started volunteering to help Dixon around that time. At a track meet in spring 2009, he recognized Charles, who by then had reconsidered running as a potential avenue to college.
"He didn't have anything going on," Dean said.
Especially from an anatomical perspective. Realizing Charles didn't have the attenuated frame of a distance runner, Dean geared Charles' training around heart and desire. Do the work, Dean assured Charles, and results will gradually follow.
Charles didn't make it out of districts in the 1,600 his sophomore year, but by the next fall had eclipsed 17 minutes in a cross country race and qualified for the Class 2A, Region 3 meet.
By spring 2010, he was anchoring the Tigers' 4x800 relay team that placed sixth at state. Last week, he ran a personal-record time in the 1,600 (4:23.65) to win the Region 3 title in Titusville.
"I mean, we really put some work in," Dean said. "And Franck, his biggest thing was he was able to stand it, and I've got to give him credit for that.
"He stuck with it; he was able to stand it."
There to exhort and encourage him was Casey, who had elevated his GPA from a 0.5 as a freshman to a qualifying level by the following year.
At the 2009 region cross country meet, he placed 24th - four spots behind Charles - and ran on the state medal-winning 4x800 team the next spring. At last week's Region 3 meet, he also notched a personal-best time in the 800 (1:56.14) to prevail.
"Mr. Casey, he can win that 800 (at state)," said Dixon, who required Casey to sign an "eligibility contract" to improve his grades. "If he chooses to."
Only one more uphill stretch remains to be conquered.
"It wasn't until they started watching how far up they were placing in cross country, so when we got over into track, the momentum was already there," Dean said. "Once they started seeing wins mounting up, that was something."
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State trackand field
Where: Showalter Field, Winter Park
When: A, today; 2A, Saturday
Admission: $8, parking is $5
Schedule: Field events and 4x800 relay finals, 1 p.m.; running event preliminaries, 4 p.m.; running event finals, 6:30 p.m.
On the Web: Tosee the qualifiers from the county, visit tampabay.com/hometeam.