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Panthers, Wildcats take titles

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 3, 2002

TAMPA -- The 27th annual Manuel/Griffin Relays on Saturday featured a three-team battle for the girls title that came down to the last event.

Heading into the 4x440 relay, Gaither held a one-point advantage over second-place Wharton, which was two points ahead of Plant. The Plant girls once again exerted their dominance in the distance events to win the race and the girls team championship. The Panthers finished first with a time of 4 minutes, 5.38 seconds to edge Wharton 80-77.

"I had no idea (it was that close)," said Plant's Rene Jones, who was named the meet's track MVP. "But coach kept telling us that we had to win this race."

With Jones leading the way, Plant cleaned up in the distance relays. In addition to the 4x440, the Panthers won the distance medley, 4x880, 4x110 and 4x220. Plant also secured first-place finishes in the long jump and triple jump.

"I was really surprised (to win the MVP) at such a big meet," Jones said. "Now, I hope we do really good in districts and states and don't burn out too early, before it really counts."

Natalie Caldwell of Gaither won MVP honors for field events. The Cowboys finished third with 73 points.

On the boys side, Wharton won its third consecutive Manuel/Griffin crown and coach Dave Watson's fifth title in eight tries.

Host Hillsborough won the long jump to keep pace with the Wildcats early, trailing by three points after four events. But Wharton's consistency secured another title for the defending champions as it opened up a double-digit lead midway through the meet.

"You need a rounded team to win in this county," Watson said. "A lot of teams have good distance runners or good sprinters, but most can't put together a whole team."

The only first-place finish for Wharton's boys came in the 4x440, but the Wildcats had six second-place finishes and one third.

That was enough to outdistance second-place Riverview by 13 2/3 points. Hillsborough came in third with 51 points, one ahead of Jefferson.

"Last year, we broke the clock," Watson said. "We scored over 100 points. But this year it's a whole different team. I try to get the kids as prepared as we can get."

Jefferson three-sport star Andre "Bubba" Caldwell won MVP honors for his work on the track and Bloomingdale's Jonathan Miller earned the same recognition in the field.

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