This Saturday will feature the 16th running of the middle school division at the FLR Invitational. For those of us who grew up in the twentieth century, "middle school distance running" meant watching the better part of your PE class walk 600 yards as part of the Presidential Physical Fitness test. The kids in this race are not those kids. They are fast - not just fast for middle schoolers, but fast for adults. The top finishers would all be varsity-level high school runners, and some would even be in the mix in a state championship. We've come a long way, baby.
The middle school race at FLR is two miles (a hair longer than the usual 3K distance for this group), and both boys and girls run together. And with a hard right around the baseball field about 200 meters into the race, the start is fast and physical. So get your coffee, head down to the starting line, and get to know the future stars of the sport.
(Also, keep in mind that this race is run before they play the Star Spangled Banner, so if you see a kid kneeling during the national anthem, he's not staging a protest - he's just really tired.)
Now that you're up to speed on the sport, here's a quick preview of this year's boys and girls races. (And apologies to any teams and kids who were omitted -- the middle school database isn't the easiest thing to navigate...)
Girls Individual Race:
With the fastest runner in the state thus far (Ani Veltcheva) running elsewhere, and the defending champion (Bella Pawloski) likely sidelined with illness, the individual race shapes up to be a repeat of last week's Holloway Park Jamboree, where Keleigh Scallon of the HTTR Tornadoes and Jacquelyn Abanses and Ellie Pleune of the Hillsborough Harriers entered the homestrech dead even. Keleigh outkicked Jacquelyn and Ellie to finish 1-2-3 in that order, but it was Ellie who came out on top at the Jim Ryun Season Opener, scoring her first major XC win, and it was Jacquelyn who finished first of the three here last year -- so look for a very close and competitive race.
If anyone were to challenge this group of three, it most likely would be one of the returning Miami Elite runners: Paola Bencosme (3rd fastest returner and top 20 finisher at last year's State XC) and Danielle Martinez (4th fastest returner) being the fastest of the group. They haven't raced much this year, but Coach Aguas always has his kids ready for this meet.
Other top entrants include Jessie Carff and Erin McAneny of the HTTR Tornadoes, and unattached runner Susie Doyle.
Girls Team Race:
The defending champion Hillsborough Harriers and returning runner-up Miami Elite lost a lot of firepower to high school this summer, leaving the HTTR Tornadoes as a big favorite. But all three teams always seem to develop new talent and show up on the big stage, so look for a lot of blue, red and black/green singlets up front regardless of how they finish.
Boys Individual Race:
Unlike the girls' race, there are nearly a dozen contenders for the top spot here. The five favorites are probably Austin San Juan of Belen Jesuit (top returner and runner-up at Junior Orange Bowl), Adrian Bichara of Miami Elite (second fastest returner, and Junior Orange Bowl champion), Liam Holston of Elite Runner Fort Myers (three top-5 finishes in XC, and third in the State 3000m last spring), Elijah Wolsefer of Breakaway Track Club (Holloway Park Jamboree champion and 18:22 XC 5K), and Esteban Moreno of Immokalee Track Club (fastest XC time in the state, and Hoptar Invite champ), but they will be joined by this talented group:
Ethan Bhatt (Hillsborough Harriers): 2nd at Jim Ryun; top 15 in State 3000m
Carlos Catala (Miami Elite): third-fastest returner; 5th in State 800m
Griffin Cooney (Creekside): fourth-fastest returner; 15th in State XC; 9th in State 3000m
Zach Harrigan (Hillsborough Harriers): 3rd and 4th place finishes in big meets on tough Holloway Park course
Johan Lopez (Elite Runner Ft. Myers): eighth-fastest time in the state; 5th at Holloway Park Jamboree
Kevin Vasquez (Elite Runner Ft. Myers): three top-7 finishes; 4th in State 1500m
Boys Team Race:
The question isn't whether the "Big Four" boys teams from last year will finish at the top, but which of them will take the podium. The defending champ, Miami Elite, and runner-up Belen Jesuit return almost their entire teams, but the favorite might be the ascendant Elite Runner Fort Myers team, who sport perhaps the strongest top five in the state under the guidance of Coach Stowell. And, of course, you can never count out the Hillsborough Harriers when there is hardware to be won.