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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Kerry Allen and Melissa Kotchman seek an elusive state title in their final seasons.
By BOB PUTNAM
Published September 6, 2005
ST. PETERSBURG - At meets last season, Kerry Allen laboriously tried to reclaim what she had lost, her arms swinging high and loose across her chest, her hips cocked back, her heels grazing the back of her shorts.
As a distance runner, the St. Petersburg senior had become the county's best. So when Allen dropped off the scene with an injury, many figured her abdication was temporary and that she would be back to beat all pretenders to her throne.
Sure enough, Allen, who missed six months (including the 2003 track season) with a stress fracture in her back, regained her spot as the county's top cross country runner last year. She won the Largo Invitational, the large school race at the flrunners.com Invitational, the Viking Invitational and the Pinellas County Athletic Conference title.
She won district and region titles, dominating both races.
Then at the Class 4A state meet, Allen was sixth, the best finish in Pinellas County. Her time of 18 minutes, 34 seconds in that race was the county's best of the season - by 46 seconds.
Still, it was not enough for her to say she was completely back.
"I don't think I ran my best race," Allen said.
She tried to stay with the front-runners, including three-time state champion Jenny Barringer from Oviedo. But Allen eventually had to let them go.
"The pace was fast because there were a lot of strong runners," Allen said. "I tried to stay near the front as long as possible, but I couldn't finish."
Allen thrived against county competition because of her experience. But in the postseason, she couldn't circumvent the mental pitfalls that came after brooding over where she would place.
She was sixth at state as a freshman, second as a sophomore. Yet despite the injury, layoff and recovery, she was only 25 seconds off her best 2003 time.
Which is why the work isn't over for Allen.
In July, she spent a week at Appalachian State running in the hills near Boone, N.C. Allen hopes the thin air and rugged terrain will help build stamina and strength in flat races. She also logged 30-35 miles a week when she came home.
"I'm really just trying to build a base," Allen said. "I want to become a tougher, stronger runner to reach my ultimate goal, which is a state title."
Her path to win that elusive title became clearer with the departure of Barringer, who is running for the University of Colorado. But four runners who finished ahead of Allen last season return.
"It definitely helps that Jenny is no longer there," Allen said. "But that's just one competitor. There are plenty of other fast girls in the state.
"My main goal is to try to win and run a smart race. The course at state (Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City) is going to be tough and will most likely benefit the runner who has a good strategy, which hopefully I can use to my advantage."
Allen is not the only girl trying to win a title in her last hurrah.
After numerous letdowns the past four seasons, Indian Rocks Christian senior Melissa Kotchman hopes to make it big.
Kotchman blew onto the athletic stage in 2000, a 95-pound whirlwind of french braids and braces. As a seventh grader she finished second at the district meet, a few seconds behind the county's premier runner, Keswick Christian's Christa Benton.
Kotchman then finished sixth at state. Benton graduated the next year and has gone on to star at South Florida. It seemed Kotchman would follow her in becoming the county's next great private school runner.
If only her body would let her.
In '01, Kotchman showed promise by finishing third at the state cross-country meet as an eighth grader.
After that, her body frequently broke down. It started during track season in '02 when she suffered a stress fracture in her back. Kotchman was diagnosed in July of that year and told not to run for three weeks.
She continued to work out in the pool. And when she returned to running, the pain was still there as she iced her hips and back for 20 minutes twice a day.
Though Kotchman still was good enough to be ranked No.1 in Class A most of the year, she faltered at the state meet and finished third again.
Two freshmen beat Kotchman. She also had competition locally from Allen.
No longer the leader of the pack, Kotchman had to push herself to prove that she still was among the elite distance runners.
Instead, she ran into a patch of her old bad luck.
Her sophomore year was a nightmare. At the state cross-country meet, Kotchman was out of breath and started producing lactic acid. Her arms became heavy, her legs slow, her reflexes dull. She collapsed before the finish.
Kotchman came back for track but never finished the season. She bowed out of the state meet after she was hospitalized with the roto virus (similar to a stomach virus or flu).
Hip bursitis slowed the two-time county runner of the year last season, but she still ran the county's second-best time (19:20). But she showed signs of health this summer. In July, Kotchman won the Run Thru Hell 5K at Tampa's Al Lopez Park in 20:10, 26 seconds faster than her closest competitor.
Other county girls who could do well include Lakewood's Ali Crabb, Largo's Kristin Fox, Clearwater's Alex Lechner and Palm Harbor University's Stephanie Rancich.
On the boys side, Seminole is loaded and could contend for a state title. Among the returnees are Tony Nicolosi, Josh Comer and Aaron Thomas. Northeast also returns two strong runners, Jonathan and Matt Mott.