Abimael "AJ" Jimenez has always been reaching for something more. Whether its a race time, a school record, a team captainship or a conference title, the distance runner has flown under the radar for the first couple of years of his career.
But now, with several goals already under his belt and a conference title in sight, Jimenez and Osceola High School have to be included in the discussion of Pinellas County cross country.
Coach Peter Eagleson and Osceola traditionally field strong cross country teams. The Warriors were Pinellas County Athletic Conference champs in 2013 and 2012, and runnersup in 2011. Jimenez made the state tournament in 2012 as a freshman. His sixth-place finish at the large, 45-team Mitchell Invitational over the weekend was not just the best finish of any runner in the county, but it allowed Jimenez to raise the bar for himself again.
It's nothing new for the 5-foot-3 junior. He picked up track as a sixth-grader attending Osceola Middle School when he ran with his older brother, Ronald. The next year, Jimenez set the school record in the 800 and 1,600 meters. At Osceola High, he and then-fellow freshman Hunter McCann quickly became the Warriors' strongest runners. McCann had the leg up on Jimenez early on. Both made the state tournament as freshmen, McCann finishing almost 30 seconds and 38 places ahead of him. Catching McCann became the new bar for Jimenez. Finally, in last year's Mitchell Invitational, Jimenez reached that goal (second in 17:27).
His size is another reason he has flown under the radar. McCann was shorter as well, and they would get lost in the shuffle and jockeying of the starting chute at meets. At least to the observer. Jimenez uses his size to his advantage.
"I'm smaller but I'm quicker," he said. "It allows me to get out at the beginning of a race, makes it easier to slip past bigger runners."
Another unmistakable attribute is Jimenez's demeanor. As goal driven as he is, it doesn't affect his jovial personality.
"(Jimenez) is always upbeat, smiling, he says, 'hello' to everyone," Eagleson said.
It's just who he is and the driving gut pain of pounding feet for 5,000 meters doesn't diminish that. If anything, it enhances it.
"I always like to have a strong, positive mindset," Jimenez said. "Even with all the pain, I always try to think positive because I know it's worth it when you do finally achieve that goal."
Jimenez says even his parents wonder why he's not more serious. The perplexity is not there with the coach who has worked with him for the past two-and-a-half seasons.
"Once that gun goes off, he's as competitive as they come," Eagleson said. "He wants it as much as anyone I've ever coached."
A fact that's evident when his goal is to break 16:30.
"I have these small things in mind and each one gives me the confidence I can reach the next one," Jimenez said.
Jimenez might just reach that goal Saturday as the Warriors head up to Crews Lake Park in Pasco County for the Land O'Lakes Gator Invitational. Last season, the top four times were all 16:30 and under.