The second annual RiverWood Invite was peculiar in that a significant part of it wound through the Pasco County Sheriff Department's Safety Town, a miniaturized town center with Hobbit-sized roads, buildings and street signs.
Much of the course was not visible to spectators as runners started down a narrow grassy area, hit pavement and shot through Safety Town before vanishing into the back trails until the 2-mile mark, where another loop through the woods brought runners in for the finish.
The girls race went off first and Natalie Abernathy of Land O'Lakes pushed out into the early lead. Into the 2-mile mark, it was Abernathy in control with teammate Estefania Acosta trailing. Abernathy was just under 13 minutes at that mark.
Both Abernathy and Acosta extended their leads and coming into the final stretch, it was Abernathy in at 20:00. Acosta came in at 20:26.10 and later Sunlake's Jamila Cardwell at 21:38.30. It was a slower course as runners had to deal with a slew of different surfaces, including water more than 6 inches deep at some points.
"The water was halfway up my shins. It slowed me down a bit but there were sure a lot of things to look at," Abernathy said. "I know my time wasn't that great but next week at North Port, there'll be more competition there so I hope for a better time."
Acosta, a sophomore in just her second varsity race, helped lift the Gator girls to the team title with 28 points. Defending meet champs Sunlake took second with 74.
On the boys side, it was Hernando's Trevor Foley from wire to wire. Foley was the Tampa Bay Times' North Suncoast Track Athlete of the Year, after winning the Class 2A 1,600 meters, and Foley shows no signs of letting up this cross country season. Foley came in at 16:33, more than 20 seconds ahead of the field but the finish line beyond Foley got very interesting.
Wesley Chapel Invite champ Alex Normandia of Land O'Lakes led the pack, trailing Foley. But coming into the finish, he and Gulf's John Jessup got into a foot race. Jessup just got by Normandia to take second in 16:53.60. That time demolished Jessup's 17:41 that won last year's RiverWood Invite.
"After the 2-mile mark, I was focusing on getting a PR," Jessup said. "The third mile I was trying to catch Foley and I passed him (Normandia) but he kept trying to get me back so as soon as I saw the finish, I just sprinted as fast as I could."
The Sunlake boys, led by Dominic Burleson (seventh in 18:21.50) repeated as team champ with 68 to Land O'Lakes' 85.