South Florida\'s Finest Come Out for Spanish River Inv

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Held in the distant shadow of the Great American Cross-Country Festival, a meet with a distinctly Spanish flavor provided some hot action in Palm Beach County on Saturday morning. Four varsity races were run under typically challenging (mid-80s) conditions in South County Regional Park in West Boca Raton, where onlookers enjoyed a layout well-suited for spectating -- approximately 2 1/2 loops in a \"shoestring\" configuration that made it easy to view runners moving in both directions. In fact, in addition to the start and finish, there were no fewer than five points in the race -- about 0.7K, 1K, 2.5K, 2.8K and 4.7K -- at which coaches, parents and supporters could spot their favorite runners without moving a muscle (vocal cords excepted).

The girls\' 3A-4A race kicked off the meet, and was marred by a rare (one would think; see below) false start during which confusion reigned -- a few athletes noticed the call-back early, but thanks to adrenalin and the noise of the crowd, most ran almost 200 meters before being frantically waved off by an official. After being given a few minutes to regroup, the field of about 180 set off anew, this time without incident. Toward the end of the first loop, Hialeah-Miami Lakes senior Isel Ramos, 4th at least year\'s 4A State Finals and 6th here in 2004, left a group of three in her wake and powered smoothly away, checking her watch often and clearly in control en route to a 20:11 triumph.

\"I believe this is a fast course, and wanted to break my season best [19:53],\" said Ramos afterward. Instead, she had to settle for a 44-second victory, easily the largest on the day.

At the halfway point, Cypress Bay appeared to have the edge on the host team, but a Shark attack in the final third of the race thwarted any chance of a Lightning strike, as Michelle Gabrielle finished a strong second in 20:56 and Erica Gomer roared out of the pack to nail down fourth to spearhead Spanish River\'s 99-106 edge.

The boys\' 3A-4A race started with no glitches and with a flurry of Miami Central singlets floating along in the lead mass of runners. Travis Nichols of Cooper City was the leader at 1K, but he soon yielded to Port St. Lucie\'s Nate Bowerman, who dragged Trevor Popravak of Ft. Myers through the halfway point in an affair that was shaping up as a duel between crosstown rivals based far to the southwest. In a close individual race that saw a number of faces at or near the lead throughout, Miami Varela had also positioned a pair of runners near the front, while Central was starting to fade.

With a quarter mile to go, the runners re-emerged from the perimeter of one of the park\'s many ponds, this time with a familiar face in the lead -- familiar, that is, to this loop, as Mike Burke can practically count South County as part of his backyard. The determined West Boca sophomore, coming off a spring in which he grabbed 4:32/10:02 credentials, stayed clear of Varela\'s Jason Tyrell by a clean second (16:49-16:50), with Popravak holding on to 3rd. The team battle went to Ft. Myers over North Ft. Myers, 52-87.

\"I sprinted out too hard in my last race and it cost me,\" noted Burke afterward. \"So I wanted to be more careful. Once the last lap started and I had caught the leaders I just went with it.\" And that was that.

Back on the distaff side, the 1A-2A race saw yet another false start, this one more benign as no runners left the start area. Once things were underway a second time, the willowy and shades-sporting Neal twins, Hailey and Hillary, went right to the front. Four minutes into the race, Hailey had a ten-meter lead, with North Broward\'s Kay-Kay Carrington, Jensen Beach\'s Emily Houston, and a pair of Naples High runners shadowing. By the 2.5K mark, Carrington had taken the point, with Neal -- who appeared to be struggling -- and Houston following close behind. The team race, meanwhile, was too close to call.

When the runners came into view two hundred meters before the \"grassy knoll\" heralding the final right hairpin turn into the 150-meter finishing straight, it was Houston who had taken command. The junior extended a five-second lead over Carrington with a quarter to go to twelve seconds, with the duo\'s times of 19:32 and 19:44 easily the day\'s fastest and extremely impressive under the conditions.

\"I was familiar with [Carrington and others] on the starting line,\" explained Houston, who describes herself as inexperienced at cross-country if not in track. \"So I knew I\'d be running for place and not time.\" Having outkicked Carrington two weekends ago at the Under-the-Lights Invitational, Houston was confident to sit on the North Broward junior until late in the race before unleashing a beast of a final kilometer. Meanwhile, her teammates were getting the job done, and when the turf cleared it was Jensen Beach over Cardinal Gibbons 72-96.

The final varsity race of the day saw the greatest degree of team dominance. From the opening steps of the boys\' 1A-2A race, Belen Jesuit Prep of Miami served notice of its strength, seeding its entire varsity in the top 12-15 slots in a tight pack that settled into a temperate clip. Individually, Bryon Willis of Upperroom Christian was a step up on his pursuers until the halfway point, when Guillermo Echarte of Belen fairly exploded away from the field. Only Billy Zenga of Cardinal Gibbons gave real chase, and it was clear at that point that both the individual and team races were effectively over. In the end, Echarte logged a 16:56 with a final mile under 5:20 to best Zenga by 18 seconds, while his team triumphed over Naples, 31-69.

Echarte was exultant as he watched his teammates pour into the chute in his wake. Asked about his goals, Echarte would only enthuse about his mates. \"I was a minute in front of our next guy [at the Wellington Invite],\" he said, noting that his team was decidedly upset about being beaten by Lincoln Park Academy in Wellington. \"We came here to win as a real team.\" About his own efforts, he said, \"Halfway through I felt like I was going too slow and as if the others were dying, so I just took off.\"

That, as they say, is racing. It was a fitting coda to a day in which some 1,600 athletes braved intimidating weather as well as each other to once again put Florida\'s distance talent on display. Special thanks are owed Spanish River coach Rick Rothman -- kept busy all morning doing everything from getting his own squads ready to announcing to reviving an ailing photocopy machine -- for putting on a first-class meet.