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Teammate on Warhawks' minds

The Seminole boys, trying to win a team championship for senior Robbie Vasquez, who was hospitalized after collapsing from a brain aneurysm, turn in an emotional second-place finish in Class 3A.

By BOB PUTNAM
Published November 13, 2005


DADE CITY - The best cross country teams are efficient even in deep distress, and one usually forgets how difficult it is to run so far so fast.

The Seminole boys showed everyone how difficult that can be.

For 3.2 miles, they took themselves to the limit of human endurance at Little Everglades Ranch in Dade City. They cramped. They staggered. They wilted. But they kept running until it was no longer a race but a test of will.

They did it because they were trying to complete the emotionally exhausting task of winning the Class 3A state cross country title for Robbie Vasquez, a teammate who collapsed during practice this week from a brain aneurysm and was hospitalized.

The Warhawks fell just short of their goal. They tried to hang with the leaders, but were outkicked in the stretch, where everyone was just flailing and running as hard as possible.

Seminole, ranked No. 2 entering the race, finished as the runnerup with 102 points, 34 behind No. 1 Tallahassee Chiles.

There was silence afterward. Then the Seminole runners threw their arms around each other and wobbled off together.

"We ran this race for Robbie," senior Tony Nicolosi said. "He was one of the best teammates anyone could ever have and he wanted this more than anything. We tried to give him that title."

Vasquez, a senior, was on the margin of his sport. He was an unfamiliar name at the back of the pack. No reporters were rushing to record his every move or thought.

He ran junior varsity for three seasons. But he worked the same as the top guys, maybe harder. Only his results were less significant. The days became months, and the months became years, and the progress was agonizingly slow.

Still, he kept trying to cut the necessary minutes and seconds that would bring him into the light. He finally did this season. He made varsity.

"Robbie earned that position, too," senior Josh Comer said. "He worked his tail off."

Vasquez never cracked the top five and didn't figure to be a factor in Saturday's race.

Though seven runners per team line up at the start, only the first five to cross the finish line score. First place overall gets one point, second gets two, 23rd gets 23 and so on. The team with the lowest point total wins.

Still, Vasquez relished the chance to run at state, to be a part of something big. It was a goal he used as high-octane fuel.

"This was all he talked about," Nicolosi said. "He was so excited."

Then came an unexpected fall.

On Thursday, Vasquez was running when he faded from the pack and collapsed. There was a cold wave of panic as teammates came to his aid. Vasquez was rushed to All Children's Hospital and was taken into surgery to relieve brain hemorrhages from a tumor.

Rita and Robert Vasquez waited in the emergency room. They had been told Robbie might not recover.

"On Thursday, my son was supposed to shave his legs with his teammates, not have his head shaved for surgery," Robert said.

As everyone continued to hope, the initial bleak prognosis changed in the intervening hours. Though Robbie was heavily sedated to relieve the pressure on his brain, he awakened the next day and was greeted by family and friends.

"I've never had anything like this happen before," coach Bruce Calhoun said. "It was just so sudden for everyone."

One teammate's struggle posed a test for the other boys. All season, they wanted to stand on the state podium, their faces beaming, their names etched forever in school history.

But their thoughts now turned to the one person who would not be on the medal stand with them.

Still, those associated with the team did everything possible to ensure Vasquez was with them during the race. The boys brought his shoes and placed them at the starting line before the race. Robbie's sister, Becky, carried his jersey as she cheered from the stands.

"Everyone did so awesome," Becky said. "Robbie will be thrilled."

Comer was the first to cross the finish line, followed by Nicolosi, Christian Homme, Dustin Kapper and Aaron Thomas. All five finished in the top 32. "I felt like Robbie was pushing us all along," Comer said.

"We just want to express our gratitude to everyone that has come to his aid," Robert said. "We're all amazed at the love and attention he's received."

After the race, some of the runners stopped by Robbie's hospital room. By then, Robbie had made strides. He spoke for the first time since surgery and was able to move.

But no one has told him how the team finished.

"We don't want him to know he's missed anything yet," Robert said.