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MITCHELL SENIOR FINDS STRIDE

Claudia Cancello runs personal best for 8th; teammate-inspired Land O'Lakes is 11th.

On the most sublime racing morning of her high school life, 5-foot Mitchell senior Claudia Cancello consumed half a banana, a little water and essentially none of Nikita Shah's dust.

Shattering both her personal record and Shah's two-year reign of dominance over her, Cancello overtook seven runners in the last 400 meters to finish eighth (18:39.40) in the Class 3A girls cross country race Saturday on a rolling course at Apalachee Regional Park.

Shah, a Harvard-bound Wiregrass Ranch senior who beat Cancello by 40 seconds at last week's Region 2 meet, placed 15th (18:58.92).

"She's never been in the same zip code (as Shah)," veteran Mustangs coach Jeff Leavey said. "The truth is, it was her day. She works hard and it was her day. That's athletics."

The improbable converged with the inspirational on a morning of 40- to 50-degree temperatures and faint wind; blissful conditions by runners' standards.

While Cancello and Anclote senior Spencer Guerette (eighth in the 3A boys race) posted the North Suncoast's top showings, Land O'Lakes' boys posted the most uplifting one.

Joining the Gators was team captain Stephen Barnabei, who had emergency brain surgery only a couple of weeks ago. On Friday night, Barnabei addressed the team in coach Kris Keppel's room at the Hilton Garden Inn.

His message was one borne of raw, recent experience: If you can handle the mental challenge that awaits, you'll do fine.

The Gators finished 11th (300 points), one spot behind Wiregrass Ranch (294) in the 3A meet. Junior Travis Nichols finished an area-best 11th (15:57.04) while classmates Tyler Stahl (16:02.23) and Jake Poore (personal-best 16:25.85) placed 17th and 42nd, respectively.

"It's been a good year and I'm glad we finished on a good note," said Keppel, his voice cracking. "Having Stephen here was an inspiration for all of us: the parents, the runners, for me. He and I are very close, one of the many sons I've never had."

Cancello, who has run cross country only two seasons, benefited from a weather-friendly early start (8:25 a.m.) and a newfound composure, essentially running 100-meter increments in her mind down the stretch.

"Last week (at region) my stomach was kind of hurting," she said. "But this week I just told myself, 'Okay, just stay calm,' and it worked."

Shah's uncharacteristic struggles notwithstanding, Wiregrass Ranch's girls still placed sixth, the area's top team finish. Bulls senior Berlin Waters was 24th (19:21.71).

"Obviously I didn't have (Shah) ready," Bulls coach Don Howard said. "That's not on her, it's on me."

Guerette, who vowed atonement after a disappointing runnerup finish at the District 9 meet, notched a personal-best time (16:18.56). Nature Coast's boys finished seventh in 2A, putting four runners in spots 42-71. Senior Cody Van Natter (17:04.62) led the Sharks.

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