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Sunday, January 8, 2012

An emotional state championship run in Tampa

Never in my journalism career was I assured of something quite like this. So assured, in fact, that I prepared months in advance.

In late July 2004, I was sitting in our two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment, me in front of the computer, my girlfriend doing some cleaning in the kitchen. We had been moved in for a month and a lot of things were still new and exciting to us at the time.

While I was filing through different Web sites to look up things, I decided to look up the Florida High School Athletic Association's site to see when state tournaments were taking place. In this particular school year in Florida, things were starting earlier than normal. So I looked up the date for the FHSAA cross country championships.

Well, they were going to be held in the same place they were the year before, Ed Radice Park in Tampa. I was there for the 2003 state championship runs. Then I pinpointed the date and time for the race I was interested in particularly.

It was 5 p.m., Saturday, November 6. Once I had a date, the next step was a bit on the radical side.

"Hey hon," I said. "We're going to spend a weekend in Tampa in November."

Now my dear lady could've looked at me like I had three heads attached to my torso as to why I would plan something just over three months away. Then I told her that more than likely, I was going to be back at Radice Park for the state 2A championship and I decided we should make a weekend of it.

She, like a lot of women I've ever been with, appreciated when plans could be made in advance. I'm not sure how much she totally appreciated making plans this far in advance ... and that it'd be a partial working vacation ... but she was pretty much down with it.

At this point, we had been going out for five months and everything in a new relationship is well, new, exciting and fresh. I'm certain that if we had made these plans, say, four years into the relationship, she may not have wanted to go. Actually, I'm pretty certain she would not have wanted to go.

I guess I have experience with women's moods.

So the next step was calling a hotel that I had stayed in six years earlier when I was living in New Jersey and used in Clearwater Beach while on vacation called the Spyglass. They were great for the time I was there, so I was excited. They gave me a sixth-floor view of the Gulf of Mexico then and they were going to give me the same view again.

All done.

Now why was I so assured that I was going to be in Tampa that weekend to cover the FHSAA cross country championships? Because our main representative in Putnam County was Interlachen High School senior Jeremy Criscione, a three-time All-Putnam County run champion who was also the defending district champion and finished sixth in the 2003 state 2A championship.

And from time to time in the summer, I'd find out how he was training for the upcoming season. He was pretty darned committed to his work, which made me believe that, barring injury, he was making a return trip to the state 2A championship.

Beside, even if he didn't, she and I had a weekend getaway. Remember: New, exciting and fresh.

Cut to a week and a half later. It is August 9, 2004, a Monday afternoon milling around the apartment. My boss calls me up with sobering news: Dwayne Cox, a longtime coach at Interlachen High, had passed away.

Cox had been a football and softball coach at Interlachen High in the 1990s, but for the last 10 years, he had been coach of the IHS cross country teams. And his positive attitude was what sold Criscione to come out for running as a lanky 14-year-old freshman. Now as a senior, his leader -- his coach -- was gone.

This could have changed everything for the first week of November in a negative way. But I had a feeling young Jeremy was going to use this as a motivator.

Three days later, Cox's service was held at a church in downtown Palatka, the town he had adopted as his home after college. Everyone who knew Dwayne Cox was there from fellow coaches and teachers to current and past pupils and student-athletes to friends and family. The church was packed. I can still remember Charlie Overturf from the funeral home and who was handling the arrangements telling me at the church that the service had not started yet and pointed me upstairs in this large house of prayer.

For the next hour, friends and peers spoke glowingly about a man I barely knew, but knew enough to be a friend to those who came around him and a positive influence. By the end of that hour, I felt like I knew this man all my life. Before he had passed, I had seen him with his lovely wife Sylvia outside the newly built Quizno's Subs as they were coming in and I was going out in late June. And before that, I had covered him with cross country and junior varsity softball.

He could be cantankerous and we butted heads when it came to what he called in to the newspaper when it came to junior varsity softball results -- JV softball for goodness sake! But I understood his point of view. He wanted to make sure that everyone that played for him knew he had their best interest.

After this wonderful service, I came down to the floor level to see people I knew there. I saw Criscione and a good amount of his cross country teammates and they looked somewhere between glum and non-committal to their emotions. But he assured me he was all right. Then I paid my respects to Sylvia and daughter Chrissie. I didn't really know Chrissie that well, but I knew Mrs. Cox somewhat.

She was still sad and had gone through her crying spells throughout the service, but was still appreciative of the people who were coming up to her wishing her well and asking if there was anything they could do to help.

It was my turn and she knew me and hugged me. Then I did something I never had planned on doing -- I moved my mouth to her ear and said this to her.

"Your husband's last great sports accomplishment in coaching is coming November 6."

She smiled, but had no idea what I was talking about. Then I told her that was the date of the state cross country championship.

That was August 12. Now cut to November 6.

Criscione had gone through the season unscathed, winning every race he competed in, including a dominating fourth straight county championship meet at West Putnam Recreation Center. On a slippery course at a park in Bronson, he repeated his district championship run, then outrun a young man named Scott Macklay of Lakeland Kathleen High by six seconds to win the Region 2-2A championship at Lecanto High School.

Remember that trip to Tampa made in July? Well now we were going to Tampa on a pleasure and business trip.

So the morning of the 6th, the girlfriend and I woke up at around 8:30. We had planned to be gone for a couple of days so we did light packing. By about 10, we were on the road, stopping off in Ocala along the way to eat at Cracker Barrel, her favorite restaurant to eat at while on the road.

Somewhere along the ride down to the Tampa Bay area, a car or truck hit a small rock and it pelted my windshield. It caused a small crack that I would ultimately have to fix, gladly for free thanks to Florida insurance laws.

Along the ride, though, I had tried to reach the hotel we were going to stay at. So did my lovely lady. Nothing. The phone just kept ringing and ringing and ringing.

By about 2 p.m., we had arrived in Clearwater Beach and proceeded to the hotel to find out why we didn't get an answer.

We saw the boarded-up hotel. This was the year of the hurricane in Florida. It started with the devastation Charley had done to southwestern Florida in August. That was followed by Frances and Jeanne in September. And now, she and I were walking into the hallway of the Days Inn next door that was open, the hotel I stayed at in November and December 1995 when I made my first trip to Florida in 26 years.

I asked what happened to the hotel next door and they said the hurricanes really did damage to it and that ruined the tourist season at that time.

Greaaaaaaaaat! Now it's 2:30 p.m., we're just two and a half hours from the race in Tampa and we have nowhere to stay. Thankfully, the Days Inn was nice enough to give us a room for the same rate that I would have gotten at the Spyglass. Our room overlooked the gulf like the other hotel's room was supposed to, so we were pleased.

After finally settling in, we didn't have a lot of time to relax. It was turning around and heading back the other way to the mainland and to the race. We jumped on State Road-60 over the causeway, back to I-275 and off at the Dale Mabry exit where we immediately stopped at Wal-mart to pick up some food and drink for the ride.

We were making good time heading to the park when we made the turn to the street leading into the park. Traffic slowed to an absolute crawl heading in. It was about 4:45 p.m. when we slipped into the park. As I can see the course on my left and time was wasting away, my significant other had an idea.

"Get out of the car," she demanded. "I'll park it."

"You sure?"

"Yeah! Go!!"

I grabbed what I needed to grab and headed to the building where journalists and photographers were to upload their works for their publications. At the headquarters, I ask for my credentials, telling the man behind the desk specifically, "It's Blumenthal. Starts with a 'B.' Palatka Daily News." I had made the online arrangements earlier in the week to get the credentials prepared for me when I got there.

He couldn't find them. And now I was in a hurry to get to the start of the race without an official FHSAA press pass. Great! Just what I need.

So now I had to fill out paperwork and the credential itself before the race. Thankfully, the race time had been pushed back a few minutes, so by the time I got everything settled and found my way back to the course, the runners were set to go. They were starting from a distance near where I was and as the go-ahead to start was made, they were being told to go back to the start.

Seems this was the second false start of the race and that I missed the first one. Usually I try to make contact with someone who I knew and was involved with the runners before the race, but traffic and this credentials snafu mucked everything up.

On the third attempt, all went without a hitch. I knew to look for Criscione as well as Macklay. There would also be Miami Gulliver Prep's Bryan Sharkey and Miami Belen Jesuit's Eduardo Arguello to watch out for, too. But the young man to beat was Tampa Jesuit's Andrew Biladeau, the defending champion and an all-around nice young man who would eventually go on to a nice running career at the University of Virginia.

Criscione's plan of attack in this race was to be more conservative, not be a rabbit and then slow down during the race, which was what happened in 2003. And as the race began, he got out with the front pack, but he didn't get out to a lead. He held back.

As I finally had everything settled, I finally spotted his coach, Ed Mingle, the man who had the daunting task to follow up Cox as coach that season. There's a reason why I call the man "Easy Eddie." He just lets a lot roll off him and he takes things in stride, even a big race like this. But he knew this was a huge race and things seemed much different now.

What a way to finish up your first year as the program's coach ... at the state 2A meet.

In the crowd, I spotted Brandi Newman, the Putnam County girls champion from Interlachen, as well as a couple of teammates. Also there for support was Enoch Nadler, a freshman at the University of Florida who had been not just a rival for Criscione for three years, but was also one of his closest friends and training buddies. And IHS athletic director Doug Feltner, who was close friends with Cox, was there as well.

Now I had familiarity and I was just off the course to see what was happening in front of me. I knew the girlfriend would do a good job in finding a parking spot.

In the second mile of the race, Criscione had passed up Macklay, who was not quite used to the pace of this pack compared to the week before. He picked off both Sharkey and Arguello.

Before you knew it on this beautiful, 71-degree night, it was just him and his rival for what would be a two-mile tussle. They both stayed in stride with one another throughout. But once they went into the artificially-lit woods area, no one really knew what was happening. All of us there to either root for Criscione or to cover him were just having faith in him that he was handling this race just fine.

Moments later at the back of the loop, I can see the two runners and I can hear the excitement from the people who had made it to the race from western Putnam County: Criscione was leading going into the final 400 meters. Five years later, Criscione would tell me that he had heard someone say, "Do it for Coach Cox!" and that was the motivation he needed to take it to another level.

After a close race with the defending state 2A champion, Criscione was now dictating how this final scene was going to play out. Above the finish line, I can see the time ticking away.

14:40. 14:41. 14:42. 14:43.

And he was nearing the finish line. Yes, the finish line! Criscione had made it a regular thing to run in the mid-to-upper 15-minute range, but his fastest time of the year was 15:24 at the region meet. Now he was on line to obliterate that time on this fast, flat course.

I readied myself near the finish line as he crossed it. But with the darkness in the backdrop and my camera not handling the speed as well as I'd like it to, I missed the winning shot as he came across the finish line in first place in 15 minutes and two seconds.

Yes, 15:02, a new 3.1-mile (5K) record for the state meet. The excitement was apparent.

The raw emotion was what I did not expect. I turned around and there were his friends happy. And there was Brandi Newman already balling her eyes out. She truly understood what this win meant. She, like Criscione, was a diehard runner who had honed her skills under Cox's tutelage.

This wasn't just Jeremy Criscione's win. This was Brandi Newman's win, too.

And this was Dwayne Cox's win.

His last win, even if he wasn't there to enjoy the rewards in person.

It would not be another 30 to 45 minutes before I would be able to speak to the champion. He had all the commitments with the state sports network, Sunshine Sports, and he was doing numerous interviews with other outlets, including one with the meet director as he fed him questions and Criscione, exhausted, did his best to answer them.

Meanwhile, Biladeau was a gracious runnerup. He knew he didn't lose the race. He gave credit to the new champion. All hail the new champion.

I finally spotted my girlfriend. She was smiling. And suddenly it hit me. All the emotion of this moment, all the drama that led to this particular night.

This meant everything to the Criscione family. But it meant more to those who knew Dwayne Cox, that positive influence in a young 14-year-old's life in 2001. He had a state champion in spirit.

I finally had the chance to talk to Criscione moments after he had that gold medal placed around his neck by Mingle, who realized the moment was bigger than he could have ever imagined. I nearly lost it asking that first question and how much that victory meant to him, his friends, his IHS teammates and then to the memory of Coach Cox.

How to this day he answered my questions with a straight face, I still am amazed by it. Here's a young man who just won the biggest race of his life and yet, he kept everything in the proper perspective without breaking down, maintaining a straight-line mentality on the answers that whole time.

No emotion to talk about from the winner. I'm thinking, "What a bummer!" But then I realized everything around him provided the backdrop to the ultimate story. And if he was in the vacuum away from all that emotion, away from the storylines that were developed that whole season -- starting with Dwayne Cox's death in August -- it may have been better than being affected by it.

I had my story notes, I had my official results and eventually had a great weekend in Clearwater Beach with my significant other, going out after the race to Pete And Shorty's in Clearwater, then to the IHOP the next morning on Clearwater Beach.

When I had a chance to finally have distance from that magical night, this was the greatest high school sports moment I had ever covered ... bigger than Lacey's 1994 NJSIAA Group III field hockey championship upset of three-time champion West Essex, bigger than that night in 1985 when Rich Siegler outswam Terence Donnelly in the final 100 meters of the 400-yard freestyle to give Toms River East an unlikely Shore Conference Tournament title over Toms River South, bigger than that June morning in 1996 when Robin Pepper stepped in for an injured Kristy Tice and delivered Central Regional -- and Ocean County -- its first state softball title.

It was both amazing and emotional. Nothing, I've said, can top that night in my career on a prep sports level.

It was proven in 2005 when after 21 years in this business, I won my first two sports writing awards, a second-place finish at the Florida Sports Writers Association for best story in my division, and a first-place finish with the Florida Press Club for best story in my division. Those plaques -- like the ones I'd win in the future -- are well kept in my closet still to this day.

Five years later, we did a ranking of the 20 greatest prep sports moments of the 2000 decade in Putnam County history and that state championship was No. 1. Rightfully so, too. And those emotions sparked a phone call for me when I came into work that Monday afternoon after the story had been in the paper on Saturday, January 2, 2010.

It was Sylvia Cox, who I had not talked to in six years. She did not want to go to the state meet that night in Tampa because the emotions were too powerful for her. But now she was telling me that I had brought those emotions back to the forefront after reading my story. And it brought a tear to my eye listening to her tell me about those times with her husband and with Jeremy and with the team. She was having a difficult time holding back her sobs.

It was a pretty intense phone call. I didn't expect it. And she updated me on what had happened in her life and she finally admitted to me things that had happened surrounding that time period that I had only heard rumors. It was a great 20-minute conversation.

And so as Jeremy Criscione, who went on to be a four-time national qualifier for the NCAA Championships in his career at the University of Florida and has since married and waits on the arrival of he and his wife's first child, and chases down a dream to be an Olympic marathon runner, I am reminded of the night he gave me and all those in attendance at that park in Tampa a moment that we will never forget.

I hope he makes it to the Olympic team one day. I want to get a chance to say I covered an Olympic runner. I already can say I've covered an Olympic soccer player (Christie Pearce Rampone) in my life. Maybe I might even cover him in person in the Olympics someday.

Either way, though, it'd be hard to top that November night in 2004. How do you top the storylines and the drama surrounding a state championship like that one?

Especially when you expected something amazing to happen months in advance.

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