Of all the days in state cross country meet history, Saturday may have been the greatest ever for the Tampa Bay area.
Hillsborough County, in particular, was downright spectacular on the 5K course at Tallahassee’s Apalachee Regional Park with three team champions — Newsome girls and Steinbrenner boys in Class 4A and Seffner Christian boys in Class A — and two individual champs, Riverview’s Alyssa Hendrix in 4A and Robinson’s Ethan Geiger in 3A.
Hillsborough County also had an astounding 18 runners earn medals (top 15 finishers), while featuring four boys teams and one girls team with runnerup or third-place showings.
“I can’t think of another day where Hillsborough County has done that well,” said Robinson coach Mark Altimari, who has been on the local high school running scene for decades. “Awesome day. I think all of us are happy for everybody in the county.”
Riverview senior Hendrix, the defending state champ, pretty much knew this year’s race came down to her and East Lake’s Parker Valby, who beat Hendrix in their previous race at regionals. Hendrix was right on the money. Both girls shot to the lead and pulled away together until the 2-mile mark where Hendrix believed Valby started to struggle a bit.
“I pushed harder at that point,” Hendrix said. “I pulled ahead and never looked back until right at the finish line. I was pretty amazed at how far ahead I was.”
Hendrix crossed the finish line with the fastest girls’ time of the day in any class, 17 minutes, 19.40 seconds, 11 seconds ahead of Valby. Plant sophomore Mary Ellen Eudaly, who was expected to compete for a top-three spot, fell early in the race and ended up finishing 16th in 18:54.20.
Among teams, the Newsome girls had finished second and third but never won — until Saturday. The Wolves finished with 99 points, a full 80 ahead of runnerup Tallahassee Chiles.
“We knew after we had a good showing at the pre-state meet (about a month earlier) that if we performed to our abilities at state that we could win,” Newsome coach Orlando Greene said. “And then we did run well (at the state meet).”
Leading the way was senior Emma Solis (eighth overall in 18:19.70) and junior Keleigh Scallon (13th in 18:42.20).
For the boys, Steinbrenner finally broke through with their first team title — and they did it with classic pack mentality.
Senior Josh King led the charge with a sixth-place showing in 15:52.32, followed by the four other scoring Warriors (including Blake Walker in 19th and Gabe Lara in 32nd) all finishing within the next 38 seconds.
Add it up and Steinbrenner, affectionately known as “Boss Cross” in reference to George Steinbrenner (the school’s Major League Baseball namesake), had totaled 129 points, 11 ahead of runnerup Ponte Vedra Nease and 16 ahead of Plant. It was another testament to discipline, considering that after the first mile the Warriors sat in 15th place.
“The rest of the field took it out fast,” Steinbrenner coach Allison Szponar said. “But I felt better when I saw that we were all on pace. They were doing their jobs.”
At 2 miles, the Warriors had moved up to fourth, then in the last 300 meters the Warriors picked off a bunch more places, perhaps the ultimate amount it needed for victory.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the way we ran and the way we finished,” Szponar said.
Not to be overlooked, Armwood senior Jake Turner had one of the best days of any local competitor, finishing third in 15:36.27.
Robinson’s boys and girls teams and the Knights’ individual star, senior Ethan Geiger, were darn near perfect.
Geiger started the highlight reel with a disciplined victory in the boys race, leading from start to finish in 15:26.35, winning by 13 seconds. After Geiger, the Knights followed with four runners — including Richard Bennett in 15th and Neal Anderson 18th — in the top 30 places.
On the girls side, Robinson placed fourth as a team with freshman Kana Kosaka leading the way in 15th place in 19:06.00.
“I couldn’t have possibly asked for anything more from any of my runners,” Altimari said. “That’s how good the day was.”
Sunlake senior Liina Winborn was highest among Tampa Bay area girls runners with a fourth-place finish in 18:11.16.
Seffner Christian not only won its first cross country title, but its first team title in any sport.
“We’ve come so close in basketball (in both girls and boys) so it feels great to finally bring that state title trophy back to the school,” coach Andy Holmes said. “Everyone is so excited about it.”
The Crusaders were led by senior John McKenzie and junior Marcus Nipper, who placed fifth and sixth in 15:59.23 and 16:14.66. After that, the scoring Crusaders all finished 27th or better.
The final Crusader tally was 69 points, 29 ahead of runnerup Oak Hall. Cambridge Christian, led by senior Reed Legg (fourth, 15:54.75), finished third as a team with 217 points. In the girls race, Cambridge Christian placed third overall, paced by sixth-grader Eliana Black (third, 18:48.38).