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Crusader star turns focus to team goals

By PETE YOUNG

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


What else can she do?

There's not much more Keswick Christian's Christa Benton can accomplish as a high school runner. She has won two state titles in track (in the 2-mile) and two in cross country.

Entering her senior year, Benton's goals must be tweaked toward specific superlatives -- merely winning a state title is passe.

She would like to again qualify for the Foot Locker national meet and improve on her 25th-place finish. She would like to improve on her personal-best times at the courses on which Keswick competes. She would like to have the best time, all classes, at the state meet.

There is another thing Benton would like to do, however, and it isn't an individual achievement: lead the Crusaders to their best season.

In 1999, Keswick Christian placed eighth in the Class A state meet, its best result ever and one spot ahead of Shorecrest. Both schools return almost their entire roster and are hoping to crack the top 5 this year.

In a preseason rankings by the Web site coachnet.net, Shorecrest is No. 6, Keswick No. 7 in Class A.

"Our team's been together a while," Benton said. "We're doing really good."

Benton is the lone senior, but three of the four other runners who scored for Keswick in the state meet return, juniors Kendra Oliver (29th at state), Jessica West (77th) and Bonnie Klepacki (88th). Sophomore Jennifer Rahn was Keswick's No. 6 at the state meet (98th), and Crusaders coach Lance Lipham is excited about the progress made by freshman Amy Godoy and eighth-grader Kelly Matthews.

"It's a little early, but I'm excited," said Lipham, who is entering his fifth season. "It should be the best year we've had."

Under Lipham, Benton is emerging as one of the top runners in the nation. She had the second-best time at the state meet among non-seniors, 17:50, two seconds behind Jill Gerber of Fort Myers Cypress Lake, who competed in the 3A race.

Benton's individual prowess is the primary reason the Crusaders have been invited to compete in a national meet on Sept. 23 in Charlotte, N.C., at McAlpine Park, the site of the Foot Locker regional meet last year in which Benton placed sixth.

"She's a great role model for the younger kids," Lipham said. "Her joy and desire for the sport are the spark plug."

Benton is so good that Lipham has her do longer training runs with the boys team. But one thing you won't get from Benton is conversation about herself. She is extremely reluctant to talk about her accomplishments.

"I normally don't talk a whole lot," Benton said. "Yes, it's uncomfortable (to talk about myself). I just try to do my best and give all glory to God."

"She's very modest about her athletic achievements," Lipham said. "But around myself and the kids on the team, she opens up more."

Scary thought I: Benton is a full year younger than most seniors. She doesn't turn 17 until February.

Scary thought II: Benton apparently has improved significantly since last season. Usually, runners improve over the course of the season and slip back a little between seasons. However, Benton is beginning this year at about the same level she finished last year. At a race Aug. 18 at South Florida, Benton was timed in 17:58 over 5K. In the national cross country meet last year, she ran 17:58 over 5K.

"She's training really well," Lipham said.

"She just loves to run. Her desire to get better relates to her love for running. She just enjoys it. She'd rather run than anything else."

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