By the midway mark in Saturday's 3A state championship race, Leon junior and defending state champion Matt Mizereck had to be wondering if his 17th birthday celebration might be upstaged by his sophomore teammate Will Stanford.
Mizereck and Stanford had distanced themselves from the pack as they passed the LER grandstands at the conclusion of the first lap and spent the next 1 ½ miles swapping leads.
"When you're running with your friend, you push each other," said Mizereck. "It's sort of like a friendly battle until it comes to the final sprint, where it determines who's going to be first and who's going to be second. … I think we just help each other get times we want; Will pushed me a lot inside (the middle of the course). I pushed him in the beginning."
The race unfolded a lot like a NASCAR race, with each runner using the draft as they traded positions. But just like NASCAR teammates, all bets are off when the checkered flag flies.
With an uphill closing surge reminiscent of his 2007 victory over Eric Larsen, Mizereck pulled away to edge Stanford with a winning and - at least temporarily - course state meet record time of 15:16. Melbourne's Brian Atkinson nipped that mark by winning the 4A title in15:15 later in the day.
Stanford was second in 15:20, a full 23 seconds ahead of third place.
"It's awesome - two of the best in the state get to run together," Stanford said of the two-man competition. "It's good to have a teammate that good. It makes us both better. It makes it a lot easier to work hard."
The hard work wasn't reserved for Leon's front-runners. At the race's midway point the Lions' title defense appeared in jeopardy as Tampa Chamberlain held a three-point lead on the strength of having all five runners ahead of Leon's No. 3 man, sophomore Riley Doherty.
That dynamic changed dramatically over the final half of the race as Doherty (16th, 16:10) charged toward the front, with seniors Eric Hoofnagle (28th, 16:30) and David Twitchell (36th, 16:34) - who were racing on the junior varisty at the Pre-State meet just over a month ago - in close proximity.
The late moves led Leon to a 63-93 win over Chamberlain, which received strong efforts from Mark Parrish (3rd, 15:43), Chase Nelson (19th, 16:16) and Charles Toledo (23rd, 16:24), but couldn't match the Lions' back-end scoring.
"We weren't nearly this good early in the season and we needed to improve," said Leon coach Andrew Wills. "There was a point in the middle of the season where I thought we weren't going to be good enough. The last two or three weeks, some of the seniors have come on real strong."
Wills, whose mother led the Leon girls to five state team titles, said his team's fortunes began to change at the Pre-State meet when Hoofnagle won the junior varsity race with Twitchell close behind.
"That gave him (Hoofnagle) a lot of confidence," Wills said. "He really made a huge improvement. Those three guys (Doherty, Hoofnagle and Twitchell) were the biggest keys to improvement."
The Lions put all seven runners under 17 minutes for the first time this season to finish with an amazing average time of 15:58.