TAMPA — Not many outside of Hillsborough County knew who Sickles High standout James Zentmeyer was prior to the 2013 Class 4A state cross country meet. Zentmeyer had a solid season going and was projected to finish in the top 20, but even he was surprised when he found himself side by side with the leaders with less than a half mile to go.
“We only had about 800 meters to go and (most of the leaders) dropped back. I hung with Nick Diaz and I was like, ‘This is crazy, just keep pushing and don’t let them catch up,’ ” Zentmeyer said.
Zentmeyer ran 15:22 that day and was runner-up to Miami Sunset High’s Diaz by less than a second. That performance has Zentmeyer in position for some lofty goals this season — a state title and a spot at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships.
Zentmeyer has been putting in up to 80 miles a week to prepare for the season. He also spent up to five hours a day during the summer building a deck and spent time at a church camp. His work ethic has never been in question, and Sickles coach Gail Bottone said sometimes she has to try to reel it in.
“He’s hard to rein in because he always wants to do more,” Bottone said.
One thing Bottone doesn’t have to worry about is Zentmeyer’s willingness to help the rest of the team. For example, at a recent preseason race, Zentmeyer ran in the JV meet to help pace some of the younger runners.
Sickles has a solid team returning that figures to be a strong contender at the Hillsborough County championships and possibly at the state meet. Some of those expectations were dampened, however, when Paris Williams, who would have been the county’s fourth-fastest returner, moved to Oregon.
The loss of Williams also means the loss of one of Zentmeyer’s training partners. Zentmeyer does some of his long runs with Plant’s Jack Guyton, who won the county championship meet last year and won the 4A state title in the 1,600 and 3,200 during track season.
“(Guyton and I) are definitely friends, but we are serious when it comes to racing,” Zentmeyer said.
Colleges have started lining up to recruit Zentmeyer, including Florida. The Sept. 20 Mountain Dew Invitational at UF will be Zentmeyer’s first big race this season.
Zentmeyer said he also has his eye on Liberty in Lynchburg, Virginia, where sister Terrill runs.
Bottone said that once Zentmeyer finishes his career at Sickles, it might be a while before she has another runner like him.
“I’ll miss the drive. He is just a dream to coach,” Bottone said.