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Thursday, October 10, 2013

The 2003 Amy-Talisa battle royale in western Putnam County

Two months into my new existence as a sports writer at the Palatka Daily News, I was pretty much covering every sport on a full-time basis during the fall season. I was handling volleyball, boys and girls golf and doing some previews for the upcoming football games each Friday night, sharing that responsibility with my boss, while covering a weekly Friday night game.

And I was handling coverage of cross country. Now let me tell you about my relationship with cross country before I moved to Florida -- it was one race, really. I covered it in 1993 at the Ocean County Observer for Bob Considine, who was stuck doing something else on a Saturday morning, so my boss sent me to a cross country meet on an September day at Toms River High School North.

Here are my memories of that day -- it was cold, it was humid, and it was raining non-stop. And I got to bond with the Asbury Park Press writer who I had seen at a couple of assignments I was at before. She brought hot chocolate in a thermos and we sat in her car. I wasn't turning her down when she offered some that hot chocolate to me. Lemme tell ya, it was pretty damn gooooooooood.

When I moved to Key West in the late summer 1999, I was the sports department for all high school sports except for football and I got to handle it that first fall with a disgruntled assistant who didn't get the job that I got. But I wasn't required to be there to cover the cross country event, just to happen on by the Key West Golf Course where the races were held and I'd scribble down the results and head back to the office afterward. There was never really any big cross country meets in the Keys, just the two or three events every fall.


So by the time I got to Palatka, I needed to be well-versed in the sport. I had an idea of how scoring went, first runner in for a team scores one point, second-place runner gets two points for his or her team and the first five runners from a team score and that's their team score at the end of the race. In other words, the lowest score wins.

And my first cross country coach who got me enthused about the sport was Interlachen High veteran mentor Dwayne Cox. Now he had been the head coach of the program for a number of years, and not only was he enthusiastic with what his team could do, but he was also enthusiastic about the sport in general. He held an annual race at the school every second Saturday of October. That's unheard of in Putnam County, Florida since most of the high schools would rather just take the weekend off from hosting anything and get right back into it on a Monday.

He invited me to IHS to take some pictures of some of his runners for the sport's preview story. So I did and got a picture for the preview of his two best runners -- Jeremy Criscione, a junior, on the boys side, and Talisa Bishop, a senior, on the girls side. If you heard Dwayne Cox talk, you'd have sworn these two young people never ... lost ... a  ... race! If someone beat them, they had to be some kind of something, if you know what I mean.

So being a newbie to the sport in Putnam County, I figured, "OK, no one is going to really challenge them." But then I had to talk to the other two coaches in the county, Phil Johnson at Crescent City and new coach Mike Lehning at Palatka. And at Palatka High, Lehning was raving about his senior leader on the girls side, a young lady with a load of talent named Amy Eller. And so while I was headlining the preview with the two IHS kids to lead off, I also had mentioned how good Eller might be during the season.

Again, a newbie picking up all he can pick up just enhances a story. So indirectly and practically by accident, I had contrived this rivalry between Eller and Bishop. But I didn't really need to try hard to do that -- they had both carved out a nice little rivalry between them. In the All-Putnam County meet that was started by Cox in 2000, Eller had won the first two county championships, but in 2002, she had developed mononucleosis and was not at 100 percent when Bishop got her and won the title.

During the 2003 season, the two had run against one another in races at different sites. Both times, Bishop had beaten Eller. And during the season, both runners had run personal bests under 22 minutes.

And that would be the backdrop for the next All-Putnam County championship, which for the second straight year was being held at Interlachen High's home course at the hilly West Putnam Recreation Center on Wednesday, October 15, 2003. The fact the race was held on a Wednesday was remarkable in its own right -- it's a religious day and it's rare anything gets held in Bible Belt Florida on that day!

As I drove down State Road-20 into Interlachen, then made a left turn and traveled the one mile south to get to the park, I took a look at the backdrop and saw how vast and wide this place was. The park had a lot of trees in the outlying area and in the middle was a downhill-like bowl ... not quite like the famous "Bowl" at Holmdel Park, where the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association championships were held every third Saturday in November, but still a challenge nonetheless.

Though there are just three schools that run cross country in the county -- all three public high schools -- there were 39 competitors for the race that day, 21 on the boys side and 18 on the girls side. Some of the boys and girls were doing simple jogs of the course preparing for the race, some were relaxed under the large gazebo with benches underneath where race headquarters were.

Cox had things measured out beforehand and actually had the kids walk the outer ring of the course so they could get a feel of how the course looked, especially to the schools that had not run at this challenging park before. That had already been done by the time I arrived at 3:40 p.m. for what I thought was a 4 p.m. race. It would start closer to 4:15 p.m.

The first race up was the girls race. I knew the boys race was going to be a freakin' farce since Criscione, who had started his domination of the sport in the area by now, had run races in the 17- and 18-minute range and not too many other runners were crashing in under 20 minutes.

No, this day was about the Amy vs. Talisa matchup. This would also make for the last matchup between the two since they did not have any more regular-season runs left and both girls had their schools in different classifications.

Though Bishop had won twice against Eller, I figured it might be a closer race this time around because this was the county meet -- Bishop had something that Eller wanted and was trying to keep her from doing ... defending the title.

And so as the 18 girls lined up to start the race down at the start of the bowl to run up the bowl and around the park twice, I kept my focus on the two favorites. I also figured with a pretty solid team that Interlachen, led by Bishop, her twin sister Heather and some other good runners, would win the team title. Almost figured that was in the bag for the Rams.

Holding on to his trusty clipboard in one hand and his stopwatch in the other, Cox got the girls lined up and as he said, "Go!" they were all off and running. And coming up the hill and winding their way around the first turn in the first circle of the race, Bishop and Eller were leading with Heather Bishop and Palatka's Emily Piscitello, also a senior, following right behind. But within the first mile, it was clear where this race was headed as Talisa Bishop and Eller forged ahead and left the other two girls behind in the larger second wave of runners.

For the next 15 minutes or so, this was the Talisa and Amy Show. And neither had a big lead on the other for the rest of the first mile. But as I can see them coming to start the second lap around the park, Eller caught Bishop and forged ahead. It was almost the halfway point of the race and I can see that it may have been a bit of a struggle for Eller, as if she may have picked the wrong time to go ahead. Not too long after she had gone ahead, it was Bishop passing Eller by as they headed for the woods.

But in spite of seemingly looking like she was in control, Bishop could never shake off Eller and build a bigger lead. On this very cool October day, both runners were running a ridiculous pace, both at just over 13 minutes after two miles, neither looking ready to give up. Simply insane.

After the second lap, runners had to go out of the park temporarily to run a shorter distance, but would come right back in. As the pair neared the third mile, it was clear Eller had one more burst in her. She had been shadowing Bishop for most of the race and now with about three-tenths of a mile to go, she was making one last effort to storm ahead. In that last three-tenths of a mile at West Putnam Recreation Center, runners had to go down the bowl one last time and then challenge themselves at the 3-mile mark to run back up the bowl and onto flat land, then circle the outside of a soccer field and detour onto the soccer field where they would cross the finish line.

As they got to the middle of the bottom of that bowl, Eller passed up Bishop. And as if she got her second wind, Eller was widening the gap on Bishop as they climbed out of the bowl and made a right turn for the outside of that soccer field.

There was no stopping Eller. She was undeterred at this point. The pig-tailed, brown-eyed beauty was in another gear that Bishop couldn't keep up at. And she widened her lead as she made it around the soccer field to the very end, then cut across as she crossed past the goal at the one end of  field and came storming up the field to the finish line.

Eller crossed and collapsed in a heap. She was handed her first-place card by Johnson while she was still on the ground recovering from the last two-tenths of a mile. Not too far behind was Bishop, who crossed the finish line, was given her second-place card and walked away in near shock.

Meanwhile, Eller was still on the side of the finish line recovering ... and weeping, both out of exhaustion and out of total elation.

Yes, she won that race. Amy Eller won the 2003 All-Putnam County title in the best girls race I had ever covered -- and really, it was my first one. She had crossed the finish line on this challenging course in 21 minutes and 40 seconds. Bishop crossed the line 18 seconds later in 21:58.

When asked why she thought she'd win, Eller answered simply, "I love the cold weather. This whole summer it was so hot, but when I felt it was just a bit cold, I felt my Yankee blood can handle it."

Now let me stop here -- Amy Eller was born in Arkansas. That's far from Yankee territory, but her parents hailed from Syracuse, N.Y. So I'm sure the visits she made to see family up north may have contributed to the "colder days" and the "Yankee blood" thing kicking in.

As for winning, Eller said afterward, "It's hard because both of us (she and Bishop) wanted to win and we had to go as hard as we could. I wanted to prove I could get the title back. I wanted this because when I remember back to my high school career, I wanted to remember that I won the final time I raced (in Putnam County)."

I never got to interview Talisa Bishop afterward. And I should have. But this day belonged to her rival. It also belonged to Palatka's girls. Piscitello finished fourth behind Heather Bishop, then a slew of Panther runenrs came in behind Piscitello -- Traci Driggers was fifth, Alice Heh was seventh and Mia John was eighth. First, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth ... that's 25 points and the Panthers had taken the county girls team title away from Interlachen, which scored 43 points.

The boys race was just an afterthought in the end -- Criscione massacred the field, winning in 17:12 and making the challenging home course look like a stroll in the park. His next closest competitor, teammate Bryan Meily, was a distant second in 19:20. Interlachen won the boys team title handily with 20 points.

The 17:12 Criscione ran set a record for the county meet on the boys side

It still stands today.

So does the times put up by Eller and Bishop on that day they both laid it out on the line for county supremacy. Ten years later, Eller's 21:40 and Bishop's 21:58 are still the two fastest times ever run in the 13-year history of the event.

Still!

A few days later, I talked with Cox. I asked him what happened to his best girls runner at the end of the county meet. Turns out, according to him, that she was not properly snacking right coming into that race, saying there were days leading up to that run in which she wasn't snacking at all.

Well, Cox got all this straightened out with Bishop. A week later at the district meet in Inverness, Bishop placed fifth in the race and qualified, along with her team, for the regional meet. That's where she put together a great race to finish second -- yes, second in the region. It qualified her for the state 2A meet at Tampa's Ed Radice Park. Though she finished 27th, she was able to say she made it all the way to the last race of the season.


That, unfortunately, could not be said of Eller. She finished ninth in a tough district race held 10 days after the county meet at Middleburg High School. However, she would finish 20th in the region meet and miss out on qualifying for the state 3A meet.

But that senior year was the start of big things for both girls. For Eller, she would continue on to score a then-record 14 goals for her PHS soccer team that winter, then make All-County as a first singles player and first doubles player in tennis that spring. Teaming up with freshman Kristin Smith, the pair won first singles at their district meet and won a first-round match in the state tournament before losing in the next round and finishing their doubles season at 19-1. Bishop, meanwhile, ran track and qualified for the 2A state meet in the 3,200 at the University of Florida, located 30 miles from IHS. She finished seventh on the track that day to also finish her IHS sports career on a high note.

Both Eller and Bishop went off to nice college careers in their sports. And in years after they graduated high school in 2004, both have competed in running. Eller was Putnam County's top female runner at the 15-kilometer Gate River Run in Jacksonville for five straight years. Meanwhile, Bishop, now married and a mom known as Talisa Fletcher, has won her share of road runs since moving on from an NAIA All-American running career at Montreat College in North Carolina.

To this day, both are still fantastically great young ladies in their mid-20s that I see or talk to from time to time. And yes, I have a hard time thinking of one without the other.

Because for one cool October afternoon in western Putnam County, they had a battle royale in sneakers that tested their skills and wills.

A day that I remember quite vividly ... still.