Virtual meet preview for Friday's Babe Zaharias Twilight Challenge at the Babe Zaharias Golf Course in Tampa, Florida. A total of 32 schools and over 700 runners will be competing in the meet. flrunners.com will be on-site with photo and race video coverage.
The top entrant in the individual girls' race will be Cambridge Christian eighth-grader Eliana Black as her two top teammates Caroline Lehman and Mary Ellen Eudaly are intentionally being held out for a later season start. Black is the defending FLYRA Middle School state cross country champion, while last year's state runner-up at the high school level in the FHSAA 1A State Finals. Her 5K best of 18:16 is over 30 seconds faster than the next fastest competitor in the field at Babe Zaharias.
Newsome's Megan Wells is the next big name in the field as she was a 5th place finisher in last year's FHSAA 4A State Finals with an 18:48 5K PR performance in Tallahassee while running 11:16 for 3200 meters over the spring. Wells is the top returnee from last year's Babe Zaharias Twilight Challenge when she finished as a runner-up in 20:13 to since graduated Keleigh Scallion.
Osceola's Kennedy Downey made quite an impression in her first ever cross country race last week with a runner-up 19:38 performance in her debut to the fall sport at the Dunbar Tiger Jamboree and will look to build upon that performance.
The team competition will be very intriguing with 7 of the top 25 ranked teams in the entire state of Florida between FL #2 ranked Cambridge Christian, FL #5 ranked Newsome, FL #8 Osceola Seminole, FL #11 HB Plant, FL #16 Robinson, FL #17 George Jenkins, and FL #23 Berkeley Prep.
Cambridge Christian will be racing without their top two runners, but their depth still might be enough to pull off a team win with their #3 runner Eli Black leading them up front as the individual front.
Meanwhile, Osceola was dominant in their season-opening win last week but is pulling double duty racing this weekend with the Jim Ryun FCA Invite on Saturday morning at Holloway Park in Lakeland. They could be treating one of these two weekend races more as a workout or tempo run.
Newsome lurks between both formidable teams in the statewide rankings and as one of several teams hopeful of becoming the 4A state team champions at season's end. They return a solid and experienced core of runners from last year's squad including four runners in the 20 minute range or faster.
Robinson also brings back 4 girls who have gone 20 minutes or faster for 5K including the 4th place finisher in last year's Babe Zaharias Twilight Challenge in Ashton Rainey, while George Jenkins also competing in the field has nearly 3 returnees who have sub 20 credentials.
Plant is an intriguing team to see how they recover from transfer and graduation losses from their 4A state champion squad of last fall. Their program has a rich history of 12 state titles with long-time head coach Roy Harrison to work some magic.
The boys' field is also very deep and competitive including three runners who have broken 16 minutes for 5K in Ethan Lipham of Berkeley Prep, William Stone of Osceola, and Ryan Maney of HB Plant. FL #17 ranked Lipham, FL #18 ranked Stone, and Lipham's teammate FL #20 ranked Kirin Karver are all ranked currently among the top 20 runners in the state of Florida.
It will be the first race of the season for Lipham and Karver, who could both go 1-2 together and press for a time close to 16 minutes flat or faster right out of the gate. Lipham is the top returnee from last year's Babe Zaharias Twilight Challenge when he finished runner-up with a time of 16:16 on the same course which he will toe the line on Friday. Karver was 9th in last year's race.
Stone is coming off his season opener last week at the Dunbar Tiger Jamboree with a third-place showing of 16:25. He finished behind two unranked runners at Dunbar, so a chance at redemption matching up with two other highly touted runners entering the season between the pair from Berkeley prep in Lipham and Stone.
Maney recorded his sub 16 performance back in the 2019 season and is looking to get back under 16 minutes in 2021 after top 15 finishes in two straight seasons in the FHSAA 4A state race.
Two other runners to pay attention to in the race were top 10 finishers in last year's Babe Zaharias Twilight Challenge in Jason Swartzlander of Newsome and Raekwon Hopkins of Alonso. Both ran in the 16:20's last fall, while Hopkins ran some big PR's times on the track including a 4:27 1600 and 9:54 3200.
Berkeley Prep is expected to be one of the better squads in 2A this fall with the likes of Lipham, Karver, and last year's FLYRA middle school state champion Liam Jordan among their formidable lineup. If running at full strength, Berkeley Prep could have the opportunity to score a decisive win and legitimize themselves early this season among the top 10 if not potentially top 5 team in the entire state.
A handful of teams ranked among the top 25 in the state of Florida regardless of classification should battle it out behind FL #7 ranked Berkeley Prep between FL #7 ranked Newsome, #20 ranked Cambridge Christian, #24 ranked Osceola, #25 ranked Plant, and Dunbar.
5:30pm - Girls Varsity (girls 32:00 and under)
5:40pm - Girls JV
6:30pm - Boys Varsity (boys 28:00 and under)
6:40pm - Boys JV