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BROOKSVILLE -- Mike Laird didn't know what to expect when he stopped at a recruiting booth manned by cross country coach Ernie Chatman his freshman year at Hernando.
But, since he had played baseball with Chatman's son and was in the coach's physical education class, Laird listened to Chatman's pitch.
"I didn't know what cross country was, and he explained it to me," Laird said. "I went out and ran one day and stuck with it and just kept running."
Now, Laird is the Leopards' top runner.
In the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference meet two weeks ago at McKethan Lake Park, he placed third and teammate Logan Emerson was fourth, leading Hernando to the title.
Though they started at different places, the juniors are expected to be the Leopards' top finishers in the Class 2A, Region 3 meet Saturday at Lecanto.
"Probably, if we had started the season and said, 'Where would you be?' with Logan, I would have probably said somewhere in that third or fourth range," Chatman said.
"But with Mike, I'm not sure we would have quite anticipated that from the very beginning, just based on last year," the coach said.
No wonder. Laird was Hernando's No. 7 runner a season ago, with a 3-mile performance of 17 minutes, 40 seconds.
But after logging 600 miles over the summer, he leapfrogged to No. 1 and set a personal best 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) time of 16:43 in the conference race.
"I felt like I needed to do it," Laird said. "I wanted to be a good runner. I didn't want to be No. 7 every year."
Emerson, No. 2 runner a year ago, completed the conference event in 17:05 -- his best 5K performance.
Laird has finished just ahead of Emerson in all but two races this season. Emerson beat him at Crystal River, and the two tied at Lecanto.
"This year's the only year we've really been neck to neck," Emerson said. "All the other years, he's been kind of loafing," Emerson joked.
Emerson is a faster sprinter, while Laird has the ability to outlast his teammate. Still, their running styles are similar.
"Neither one has blazing speed, so they're probably better to be able to go out with a decent pace to begin with and run the middle part of the races hard and really kind of hold on," Chatman said.
Emerson has been around the sport most of his life.
He has been running road races since grade school. His older brother, John, runs at Florida Southern. Emerson's father, Frank, was a sprinter at Hernando. His mother, Joan, also runs.
"Some of the support he gets, I think, helps drive him," Chatman said.
Emerson beat his brother's freshman times, and he and Laird have approached John's sophomore performances. But neither has come close to the 15:50 John ran as a senior.
"Next year, that'll probably be our goal," Laird said.
Running isn't the only thing Laird seemed to pick up easily.
He has bowled a couple of 300 games and averages 207 in a Young American Bowlers' Association league despite starting the sport only three or four years ago.
"I just came in one day and bowled, and I was pretty good," Laird said. "I bowled like 150, 160, and just got into it."
Laird and Emerson often bowl, play pool or watch movies with their teammates. Though they compete on the course, team goals come before individual glory.
"Our goal was just to be a good team this year, a good, solid team," Laird said. "And that's what we did. We're a lot better than we were last year."
-- Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.