In 27 years of coaching – 22 of them at the helm of Spanish River High School's cross-country teams – Rick Rothman has seen his share of unusual occurrences. Until last year, however, he'd never seen a runner go down with, of all things, a hernia, and until the past month he – like many locals – had never seen Florida so thoroughly besieged by hurricanes.
From a broader perspective, those two issues – athletes falling by the wayside and an already-short season further impacted by the state's weather woes – loom largest in the path of Spanish River's quest to secure a sixth straight Class 4A state title. Last fall, the Sharks overcame a confounding series of injuries to its top runners during the regular season to best Buchholz High School of Gainesville by 16 points at the State Championship race. "Midway through the season," says Rothman, "I threw my hands in the air and said, 'Look, we're going to focus on one thing, and that's on winning the State Championship meet.'"
Spanish River dealt admirably with that challenge, but now faces a whole new slate of them. Owing to a combination of graduation, redistricting (with the opening this fall of West Boca High School, enrollment as Spanish River is down from around 3,200 students to about 2,500) and transfers, Spanish River is without six of its top seven from its victorious 2003 campaign. In one season, Spanish River has moved from an experienced squad fronted by veterans to a young team 22 girls strong that features but one senior, Kelley Mitchell, who was injured for all of last season but was the team's #2 runner as a sophomore in 2002, when she placed fourteenth at the State Championships.
Despite the first two meets of the season being cancelled as the result of weather issues, Rothman's runners are well prepared, having met for practices three times a week over the summer in addition to following daily training schedules that saw some of the more experienced Lady Sharks topping 50 to 60 miles a week. Conditions permitting, the Sharks will finally open their season this Saturday at their very own Spanish River Invitational, which includes combined 1A-2A and combined 3A-4A races for both boys and girls. The event is slated to get underway at 8:45 a.m. in Boca Raton's South County Regional Park.
Looking beyond his own charges, a major hope of Rothman – the Florida Athletic Coaches Association's cross-country chair – is to have the FHSAA allow for a lengthening of the season, ideally into the third week of November. Not only would this allow for more favorable conditions for the runners, but it would permit top athletes to transition more efficiently from Florida's championship races to the Footlocker-sponsored regional and national events. He would also like to see the state to relax its no-jewelry rule for special occasions, such as kids running in "WearYellow Livestrong" bracelets sold for $1 by the Lance Armstrong Foundation and aimed at raising over $5 million raised for cancer research. (URL: http://www.nike.com/wearyellow/index_f.html)
For the time being, though, Rothman is happy to focus on the considerable task at hand. Like Armstrong himself, Spanish River is gunning for a sixth consecutive triumph, and like the legendary Texan the team has stared down considerable adversity in putting itself in such an enviable position. He figures Buchholz – which returns six of its top seven from last year's State Meet – to again be the Sharks' greatest obstacle to securing another title. "We're not a team that relies on superstars," Rothman notes. "We really depend on bunching and teamwork."
Given the variety of unusual hurdles the young Sharks have faced, it's only natural that spirit de corps – the essence of a successful squad of harriers – is at the root of their past and possibly future success.