TAMPA — If they weren't friends, their rivalry might be fiercer. Their stares down the straightaway might be filled with as much animosity as intensity if they weren't teammates, classmates, nearly soulmates.
"I wouldn't call it a rivalry," Wharton senior Mikayla Barber (pictured, left) says of the dynamic between her and fellow Wildcats hurdler Tyler Watson (right). "Basically, we're both going out there on the track and just pushing each other to reach our full potential."
The distinction between friend and foe again will be blurred Tuesday. Barber and Watson, respectively nicknamed "Princess" and "Big Dog" by Coach Anthony Triana, will vie for the 100- and 300-meter hurdles crowns at the Vernon F. Korhn County Championships at Jefferson.
Chances are, they'll be the top two finishers in both. Barber and Watson, both of whom own unweighted GPAs above 3.5, enter the meet ranked first and fourth in the county, respectively, in the shorter race; and first and second, respectively, in the longer.
Each owns a state medal.
"When you get on the line you can't worry about your teammate and say, 'I have to beat her," Barber said. "You worry about yourself at the end of the day. It's me and the clock basically."
Neither is so much a natural hurdler as a natural athlete. Both gravitated to their specialty events at the behest of veteran 'Cats assistant Wes Newton, himself a former hurdler.
Before then, they did — well — everything. During the course of her career, the 5-foot-9 Barber has competed in six different events for Wharton, three fewer than her 5-3 teammate.
"The best thing about both of them is, they're both athletes. They can just go out there and do 'em," Triana said.
Barber's personal-best times in both hurdles races (14.70 seconds in the 100, 43.96 in the 300) are faster than Watson's (15.28 and 44.25), but Watson may possess more versatility.
At last week's Western Conference National Division meet at Armwood, Barber won both hurdles events. Watson was third and second, but won the triple jump. They also ran legs on the winning 4x400 relay.
"Tyler just has a heart you can't coach in a lot of people," Triana said. "Mikayla has that confidence you can't coach. When you put them together, it's just something really special."
Last year, Barber and Watson were fourth and eighth, respectively, in the 300 hurdles at the Class 4A state meet, and helped lead the 4x400 team to a ninth-place finish. Projecting them to combine for a dozen team points this year isn't a stretch.
Their efforts to score will be equal parts collaborative and competitive. At each starting line, Barber and Watson will put their palms together above their heads, keep them together as they make a circle in the air, then break with a clap.
Over the ensuing seconds, they're on their own.
"We both want to win," Watson said. "But if anybody beats us we want it to be one of us. We want to take first and second. We both just try to win and (set a personal record)."
Vernon F. Korhn Hillsborough County Championships
When/where: Tuesday, Jefferson High
Schedule: 4x800 and field events, 1 p.m.; running preliminaries, 2 p.m.; running finals, 5 p.m.
Defending champs: Plant (boys and girls)