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Lead pack drawing a crowd

By JAMAL THALJI, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002

Mitchell's Nicole Guercio is the fastest runner in Pasco County.

So far.

Her latest time, 20 minutes, 38 seconds, was good enough for fifth place at the Sept. 28 Red Mule Invitational in Brooksville, and before this weekend's races, it stood as the best time by a county runner so far this season.

Land O'Lakes' Dani Shimer was sixth at Red Mule with a 20:46, just eight seconds behind.

Wesley Chapel's Stephanie Amerman was ninth with a time of 20:59.

River Ridge's Samantha Jacobsen was 11th at 21:02.

Teammate Danielle Coyle was 14th at 21:07.

Get the picture?

Those are the five fastest times run by county runners this season, and they're just 29 seconds apart -- and they're just getting started.

The girls field is the closest it has been in nearly a decade. Any of the six top runners -- Guercio, Shimer, Amerman, Jacobsen, Coyle and Gulf's Melissa Dattoli -- could defeat the other five on any given morning.

"It's just neck-and-neck for a lot of girls this year," Gulf coach Dean Lofton said. "I think any one of those girls there can take it."

Said River Ridge coach Erik Hermansen: "I would say this is the best field in cross country this county has seen in 10 years."

Before last season, the annual Sunshine Athletic Conference meet was more coronation than race. River Ridge's Jacki Waller dominated in her era, winning conference titles from 1993-96. Gulf's Barbara Carr followed, winning SAC titles from 1997-00 while battling Ridgewood's Lizzy Leigh, another top talent.

Jacobsen changed all that last season, charging down the stretch at Crews Lake Park to stun the favorites and win the SAC crown with a time of 19:45. Teammate Coyle followed to win runner-up honors in 20:07. Land O'Lakes' Shimer was third (20:15) and Gulf's Dattoli sixth (20:26).

That same group is even tougher now.

Guercio is off to a fast start with victories at the Sept. 7 Gator Invitational, the Coach Rob Robinson Invitational Sept. 20 and the North Suncoast's top finish at Red Mule, fifth place.

Shimer is also excelling. She was sixth at Red Mule and finished fourth in 20:49 in the large school division at the Sept. 20 Flrunners.com Invitational.

"Everyone has stepped it up," said Coyle, who won the Sept. 14 Ridgewood Invitational. "I think Nicole pretty much dominates. Her and Dani Shimer. They're doing awesome."

So is Amerman, the Wesley Chapel standout and newest entrant to the county's elite. She was ninth at Red Mule, and is just the third county runner to crack the 20-minute barrier this season. She finished second at the Ridgewood Invitational.

"She's a very young runner, and look how much more she has matured from last year to this year," said Wesley Chapel coach Fran Helfrich. "She trained all summer on her own and came back strong.

"She has more of an "I want to win' attitude this year. She's doing more goal-setting and meeting her goals."

It might make Saturday mornings tougher for these runners, but there is an obvious benefit to all this competition within county limits: They're all just going to get better.

Only one can win the county title at the Oct. 26 SAC meet. But in the postseason, all will reap the benefits from these close regular-season races.

"Yeah it pushes me harder, knowing there's people in front of me and knowing I have to try to work to catch up to them," Coyle said, "and I admire all of them for stepping it up so much this year."

What makes this field even more daunting is their youth: None of them are seniors.

Coyle, Dattoli, Guercio, Jacobsen and Shimer are juniors. Amerman is a sophomore.

Shimer said it has also always been a friendly competition between runners, most of whom have run against each other since they were freshman.

"I think the competition definitely helps us because the girls I'm competing against are juniors as well," she said. "We've known each other since our ninth-grade year of track. We all cheer each other. We all know each other's talents."

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