The Brandon High girls cross country team entered this season as the defending district champion.
The team surprised Strawberry Crest last year to win the title, but team members know it won't be able to sneak up on anyone this year to win the title.
Helping lead the way for Brandon are sophomore Victoria Prenatt, 16, and senior Lupe Espinoza, 17. The duo finished third and fourth, respectively, at last year's district meet. With the graduations of Trixi Menge from Strawberry Crest and Amber Duncan from Armwood, Prenatt and Espinoza will be the top two returning runners in the district — something that surprises Espinoza, even though the senior puts in regular training runs of 8 miles or more and has even given up soda.
"I started cross country as a sophomore, and I just wanted to make the varsity team," she said.
Head coach Robert Maestas has also seen the change in his star runner and thinks there was a turning point at Brandon's home meet last season, the Don Bishop Invitational, when she ran the 5K in 21:18.
"I didn't think Lupe at the time thought she could run with the fastest runners," he said.
Prenatt, who took up running when she was 9 while her older sister, Brittany, was on the Brandon squad, is recovering from a knee injury sustained during track season that kept her from running for three months.
"I was really upset I wasn't able to run," she said. "I'm just trying to get back to where I was."
Lucky for her, the district meet will be held at her favorite course: the Sydney Dover Horse Trails. It's a challenging course with soft grass, dirt, and hills. The hills are a good thing for Prenatt.
"I like hills," she said.
Maestas, who is in his 10th season as head coach, is defending a district title for the first time. No one is really even sure of the last time the girls team won a district title, he said.
Even though he has the top two returning runners, Maestas worries about the depth of his team.
"I'm trying to figure out where I'm going to get that fourth and fifth runner from," he said.
Last year's upset title win should help any early adversity the team might face, such as Prenatt's knee injury, Maestas said.
"We are just going to act like things are normal," he said. "They are going to work just as hard."
So far, so good for the Eagles. Through their first two meets, the Seffner Christian Kickoff and the East Hillsborough Invitational, Brandon was ahead of East Bay, Lennard, and Strawberry Crest. The team has yet to see Armwood or Bradenton Bayshore.
The final test will be the district meet in October, where team members hope to win more hardware they can show off in front of the student body at their fall pep rally.
"Last year at the district meet we wanted to come back with the trophy for the pep rally," Espinoza said.
"We are up for the challenge again," Prenatt said.