Running with an eye toward state
TAMPA - When you go through the pain and suffering of logging hundreds of grueling miles together, a certain bond develops between cross country runners. And if you stick with it long enough, your running mates might start feeling like family. That's certainly the case for the Steinbrenner High boys and Plant girls as the squads enter the 2012 season as not only Hillsborough County's clear No. 1 programs, but also ranked among the state's best. At Steinbrenner, the boys team looks and feels a lot like the Leto teams of the 1980s and 1990s that won seven state championships under coach Bob Ennis. It's no coincidence because Ennis is still helping provide the workouts and one of his former star runners, Bobby McConnell, is now the head coach. In very much the tradition of Leto's famous Long Red Row days, this Steinbrenner team lays on the ''Yes, sir'' and Thank you, sir'' responses when being interviewed by an adult. And most of these Warriors boast grade-point averages in the stratosphere — many them well above 5.0 weighted — and running journals listing hundreds of miles.Moreover, you get the very Leto-esque, self-effacing attitude of "One for all, all for one'' and ''We're don't care about the rankings'' from these runners. Whether it translates into a shot at the Class 3A state crown for Steinbrenner remains to be seen. After taking the runners-up trophy in 2A two years ago, the Warriors finished 12th in 3A last fall. But with seniors Tyler and Zach Lima, Matt Magee, Chris Ceretta and Tanner Biles all returning, plus an influx of several new talented runners to the varsity mix, the Warriors could make a run at the state crown. Following a strong track season, the Warriors say they have put a renewed emphasis on quality over quantity, team over individual. And with this being their last year in high school together, all the seniors say there is a sense of ''now or never'' on this squad. "Our top five guys are all seniors and we're not really teammates, we're more like brothers,'' Zach Lima said. ''Over these last three or four years, coming up through the ranks of the team together and running together, we're running for each other.'' ''We have the same vision for this team this year, the same goals for the team,'' Ceretta said. "We really care about one another and after working so hard the last four years, this is our last chance to show what we've got.'' On the other end of the county, you can hear that same sense of urgency from Plant's senior-dominated girls squad. Yes, the Panthers are coming off back-to-back state championships in 4A, titles that gave coach Roy Harrison 10 state championships at the school and tied him with Largo boys legend Brent Haley for the most state crowns for a single gender in the sport. The Panthers return senior standouts Julia Rodriguez, Caroline Gibson, Scarlett Fox and Katherine Ralston and are aiming to leave high school on a high note and give Harrison one more ring to put him alone at the top. Another senior, Emory Pitisci, joins the squad after a solid track season and should provide depth until sophomore star Erica Oosterhout returns from knee surgery. ''Julia and Katherine and I started running together at Plant as freshmen and Scarlett came to the team last year but we've all grown to be a family,'' Gibson said. It's hard to believe we're not going to be running together much longer. ''It makes you want to want to work that much harder for coach Harrison. We have a really good chance to win (state) again and after four years of what he's done for us, I think we really owe it to him.''
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