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Christa Benton must hold off a late surge.

By MIKE READLING

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


TAMPA -- One by one, the rest of the pack faded away from Keswick Christian's Christa Benton at Saturday's USF/Jesuit Cross Country Invitational.

First, it was Riverview's Dee Dee Haefling, who watched helplessly as Benton and Fort Myers Cypress Lakes' Jill Gerber broke away just after the first mile. Then it was Gerber's turn to watch as the Keswick senior surged just past the 2-mile mark, taking as much as a 100-yard lead before heading on to the track for the final 300 yards of the 3-mile invitational. The race, however, was far from decided.

Gerber found one more burst of energy, and she used it to spring right onto Benton's heels as they neared the finish line. But Gerber found it too late, and Benton held off the junior, winning the race by 36 one-hundredths of a second with a time of 17:38.60.

The win was Benton's first at the meet, annually one of the largest regular-season meets in the state. She finished second last year and fourth in 1998. It was Gerber's second consecutive year watching the pony-tailed Benton cross the line just ahead of her.

"I just moved way too late," Gerber said. "I didn't think I could go. I let her get too far ahead of me. It seemed like every time she turned a corner, she'd try to push ahead more and more."

The race began with a pack of about six runners breaking away from the field. That pack slimmed down to Haefling, Gerber and Benton just before the mile mark, and Gerber and Benton broke away less than a half-mile later.

Haefling finished third, followed by Jacksonville Bishop Kenny's Natalie Lotula and Carling Cookerly of Sarasota Riverview. Gaither's Amanda Wells was seventh with East Bay's Lindsey Moffenbier eighth and Bloomingdale's Amber Littleton 10th.

"I'm not as happy as I could be, but I'm pretty happy," said Haefling, who finished in 18:12. "I tried to pull a Steve Prefontaine; whoever controls the pace, controls the race. But I couldn't control the pace today."

Bishop Kenny won the team title, beating runner-up Winter Springs by 36 points. Academy of the Holy Names recorded the highest area finish at eighth, with Plant and Bloomingdale rounding out the top 10. Wharton was 14th.

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