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Saturday, October 29, 2011

The day everything aligned for the Interlachen cross country program

Heading to Whispering Pines Park in Inverness on Thursday, October 23, 2003, I was assured of one thing, maybe two.

The absolute was that Jeremy Criscione was going to qualify for the Region 2-2A cross country meet the following week. I was pretty sure he was going to win the District 3-2A meet.

The almost absolute I expected was that his teammate at Interachen High School, Talisa Bishop, was going to be good enough to qualify in the Top 15 at the same meet on the girls side and also move on to the regional meet the next week at nearby Lecanto High School.

After that, though, it was strictly a guess of what good might come out of this afternoon. It had been a week since Criscione dominated the All-Putnam County cross country meet. It was also that same day that Bishop lost a memorable battle with Palatka's Amy Eller for the girls title, the two battling stride for stride before Eller pulled ahead and zoomed to the finish line in 21:40, 18 seconds faster than Bishop.

How much of that was in Bishop's mind, I had no idea. Athletics has a strange way of turning one's physical attributes into a side of psychological spaghetti.

Still, it was a new day and when I arrived mid-afternoon at the park, I knew the drill: the ladies would go first, followed by the guys.

And so the girls took off. The entire Interlachen team was solid, but how good they were against some of the better teams in Citrus and Marion, Alachua and St. Johns counties remained to be seen.

I hung out on the side waiting to see where  Bishop was going to be and from there to see how close behind her teammates were in the battle to pick up points. She passed by me near the first mile and after that came her twin sister Heather, followed by teammates Brandi Newman, Daisy Salinas, Ashley Criscione, Jeremy's sister, and Courtney Spitzner. They were within striking distance of some of the girls on other teams, so maybe, just maybe, there was a chance that the Rams' girls might qualify for the region meet.

Talisa Bishop came across in fifth place in 21:54, so she was going off to the region meet as an individual. But then other runners were crossing the finish line. I started counting the eighth, then ninth, 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th runners coming in. Then came No. 15 -- Crystal River's Stephanie Bodden, who got across the line in 22:58.

Eight seconds ... that's all the difference made between Bodden and Heather Bishop crossing the line and qualifying individually, too, for the regional meet. She finished in 17th place. On Heather Bishop's face was both the look of exhaustion and dejection.

It would be another minute before Newman crossed in 28th place, then Salinas came across in 46th in 28:07, Criscione in 49th in 28:46 and Spitzner right behind in 50th in 28:52.

Judging by what schools were being represented crossing the finish line, I knew it was going to be a close one for Interlachen. There were 12 teams at the event and the top six teams points-wise would qualify to go on to the region meet.

Rams coach Dwayne Cox, the inspiration for many of those young ladies and gentlemen running for the school, was doing inventory with his runners, checking his young ladies out to see how they were. Even he had some question as to whether or not they were going to move on. For the moment, the only person he knew he was taking with him to Lecanto High the next Saturday was Talisa Bishop.

Meanwhile, as the boys' race began, I found my way to Heather Bishop. This story was really going to be about her. Sure, her twin was a dynamic runner in every way, but I always felt like Heather was the forgotten one. She certainly didn't have her sister's wheels, but she could hold her own on a cross country course.

I can see the bummed-out look in her eyes.

"So close, too," she said to me.

I was really feeling her pain at that particular moment. Then she got her resolve and smiled. "Guess I can be a cheerleader for my sister next week," she said. Then we talked about the race.

"I had no idea what place I was in," she said. "It was my best race, but it would've been better had I qualified (individually) for the states."

Meanwhile, the boys team was in the similiar situation as the girls team, though the boys were expected to finish in the top six and move on to the regions. Jeremy Criscione was not disappointing through the first mile, even if his best running friend, Keystone Heights' Enoch Nadler, was chasing him throughout the course.

At 16 years old, you could see how effortless running was to Jeremy Criscione, like he had a gift that he was putting to full use. I knew this was the best boys cross country runner I had ever seen and the best was still yet to come.

He won the race in 16:24, eventually putting space between himself and University of Florida recruit Nadler, beating him by 31 seconds.

Now Talisa had someone to go to Lecanto with. The rest was going to be up to the young Interlachen Rams boys runners.

And it also was up to where the points fell in the just-run girls race.

Bryan Meily was the second Interlachen runner, coming in 28th in 19:09, followed by Lamar Green in 43rd in 20:16, three seconds after that by Kyle Pope in 44th. Harley Rollins was the fifth and final Rams boys scorer in 51st place in 21:09.

It appeared Interlachen's boys were also going to be close to the region meet.

So off to the large wooden, gazebo-like structure where the race was being headquartered with the positive-minded Cox. Even he, though, admitted it was going to take some luck and some personal bests for his teams to get to the regions.

We were waiting for the final girls' totals. Seems there was some confusion on some placements. We were being held up. Not just Coach Cox and myself -- the six young ladies clad in blue and white uniforms were being held up, too.

It gave me time to actually have a small conversation with Cox, the program's head coach for nine years. He took pride of his program like coaches up in Ocean County, New Jersey did. In New Jersey, cross country is as important a sport as football, soccer and field hockey is during the fall.

The man ran a very strong cross country program and took pride in it. Long before budgets would slash schedules and how far a team could travel for a meet, Cox would take his team to many meets. They even hosted a Saturday event once a year at the home West Putnam Recreation Center, as well as host the county meet.

"Sometimes it takes some luck," Cox said. "But I said I felt we could finish anywhere between fifth and seventh place with both teams."

Finally, the girls results came in. Cox grabbed a copy of the results before I could get a copy. He looked at them and then he showed me. There it was:

5. Interlachen 136.

"Knew it was going to be close," he said. "But we had girls run personal-bests in the race. Sometimes you need that."

Moments later, Talisa Bishop arrived from the group of other Rams runners who were waiting 75 feet away from the gazebo.

"How did we do, Mr. Cox?" she asked. Then he showed her the final team finish.

A smile came across her face and a walk started turning into a skip, like Bambi playfully romping to her fellow does. From the distance, coach Cox and I watched side by side as Talisa Bishop began telling her teammates they would be running in Lecanto with her next week. A jubilant scream came from the area.

Cox looked at them, then directly asked me, "You know why I love to coach? Watching their reaction says it all."

For some reason, the boys' results were taking time to print out. Moments later, the results were in. Dunnellon and Lecanto were first and second. Menendez was third, followed by Keystone Heights fourth and Inverness Citrus fifth. Then came sixth place.

Interlachen, 138. The Rams beat out Alachua Santa Fe by 55 points to claim the final team spot.

The end result was all that mattered. Talisa Bishop and Criscione were going to regionals as individuals ... and their teammates were going with them as a team.

It would be great to tell you that the next week at Lecanto both teams had great days and qualified for the state meet. But that would simply be embellishing the story a bit. Neither did make it beyond the region meet.

However, Bishop had one of the best days of her career, finishing second to qualify for the state meet. Meanwhile, Criscione finished second to Nadler and also went to the state meet at Radice Park in Tampa, where he would finish sixth overall and Bishop would finish 27th in her final high school race.

And little did I know that November 2003 night in Tampa that I would be seeing Cox coach for the last time. He passed away in August 2004, and before Criscione won the state 2A title a few months later, the end of the road came for the IHS program in terms of how good it was. It never has quite recovered.

But I am always reminded of that late October afternoon in 2003 when the moon, the stars and the sun aligned with one another at a park in Inverness for the IHS cross country programs when it looked like it wouldn't be a completely successful day.

I look forward to another day like that on a cross country field somewhere again.

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