TAMPA — The USF/Steinbrenner Invitational turned 5-years-old Saturday and it was sleeker, smarter and stronger.
Gone were the mid-day stretches where 25 heats of the 300 hurdles were run and spectators, coaches and athletes roasted under a broiling sun. Gone too were the long, drawn-out field events and the stadium lights that flicked on about 8 p.m. after more than 12 hours of competition.
In its place were pre-meet qualifying standards in the field events, a slightly smaller overall field (with 69 schools represented and 1,460 athletes from across the state), streamlined morning prelims and a finals format that started at 3 p.m.
“It was fantastic,” Jesuit coach Andy Wood said after his team placed second with 43 points, 11 behind the winners, Hallandale. “I applaud (meet director and Steinbrenner coach) Ladd Baldwin and all the people who worked with him. This meet is a highly competitive, elite meet with some incredible performances. What a great meet to have at this time of the year because it serves as a measuring stick as you head into the second half of the season.”
One of the top area individual state title contenders to emerge Saturday was Gaither’s Rachel Cazares, who won the 800-meter run in 2 minutes,16.71 seconds, a time that currently ranks fourth among all classifications and is less than a second behind the leader.
Another of the top county individuals to watch is Plant’s Jack Guyton, who won the 1,600 in 4:19.07, which ranks fourth overall in the state.
Sickles’ James Zentmeyer, who placed second at the Class 3A state cross country meet and finished fourth on Saturday in the 3,200 in 9:41.48, currently ranks 16th in the state. Zentmeyer, however, also seems to have a penchant for running his best at the ends of seasons.
In the sprints on Saturday, Middleton’s Anthony Rhynes was leaned out at the tape in the 100 in 10.71 seconds. Rhynes’ time ranks 17th in the state, but it should be noted that Rhynes’ race was run into a slight headwind, and his time could drop in better conditions.
Two defending state champions from Hillsborough County – Jesuit pole vaulter Nick Catchur and Bloomingdale’s 4X800 boys relay team – finished second Saturday, but both appear in fine form. Catchur cleared 14 feet and the Bulls’ 4X800 ran 8:05.5, which makes it conceivable that Catchur could clear 15 feet and the Bulls could go under 8 minutes before they’re finished in May.
In the end for Baldwin, the Steinbrenner meet has been a rewarding and an evolving event.
“The first year it was like I hope somebody comes,” Baldwin said, chuckling. “Then your mindset changes. Now it seems like everyone knows we’re running on a world-class surface (installed this year) and the overall facility is fantastic and the officials want to be there. So now, it’s like if you want to go run at another meet somewhere else that’s OK, but if you come here, your kids are going to have a great experience. I see a lot of the same faces every year and I keep getting some good feedback.”
The Road Ahead
For several teams who skipped the Steinbrenner Invite, another midseason measuring stick awaits at Saturday’s FSU relays and the Walt Disney World Open. Plant, for instance, will bring its girls distance runners to Tallahassee.
After that, county teams will gear up for Federal, National and American divisional meets on March 26, which will qualify athletes for the Vernon Korhn Hillsborough County Championships on April 1.
A week later, believe it or not, the road to the state meet begins in earnest with Class 1A and 2A district meets.