UF cross country holds its lone home meet of the season Saturday, and the first Gators to cross the finish line are shaping up to be different from last year.
On the men’s side, last year’s top finisher at the Mountain Dew Invitational for Florida was then-freshman Thomas Howell.
With a fifth place finish overall, Howell led the Gators to a second place finish behind Georgia Tech.
This year, the would-be sophomore will not race for the Gators after deciding to leave the program during the offseason.
Cross country coach Paul Spangler’s only comment on the matter was that Howell "chose not to run anymore."
Regardless, Howell would have been hard-pressed to pull out another top finish due to the returns of redshirt seniors Jimmy Clark and Eddie Garcia, both of whom sat out last year to preserve an extra year of eligibility.
Garcia ran in the Mountain Dew Invitational last year as an unattached runner, meaning that his score did not count for the team.
Garcia finished in third, and both he and Clark are poised to be up there again this year based on their finishes at the season’s first — and so far only — meet, the Covered Bridge Open.
Junior Carlos Miranda, who placed seventh at Covered Bridge only 12 seconds behind Clark and Garcia, said having the two of them back is not only going to help because of their speed, but also because their presence is revitalizing the whole team.
"The team is more alive and more awakened now that we have (them) back," he said.
As for the meet in general, Miranda said that the plan is pretty much to replicate the team’s performance from two weeks ago.
"I just want all of us to come in together as a group just like we did a few weeks ago and pull out the win," he said.
For the women, the team will be hoping for a resurgence from sophomore Lauren Brasure.
At last year’s Mountain Dew Invitational, not only was Brasure best on the team, but she was the best overall, setting a UF Program 5K course record (16:45.93) en-route to leading the Gators to a first place finish.
This year, it doesn’t look like she’s going to replicate that success.
At Covered Bridge, she finished ninth on the team, nearly two minutes behind team-best finisher Maria Larsen.
After that meet, Spangler said that she wasn’t where she needed to be coming out of summer.
However, he likes what he’s seen from Brasure in the practices that have followed.
"She’s looked better," Spangler said. "She’s gonna continue to get fitter, and so I’m optimistic that as we get to the championship races later in the year, she’ll be where she wants to be."
Aside from Brasure, another name to watch on the women’s team is Taylor Tubbs.
Tubbs finished second on the team at Covered Bridge and fifth overall with a time of 18:03.44, a mere four seconds behind Larsen.
Echoing the sentiments of Miranda, Tubbs plans to run as a group with the team’s current top three (Larsen, Becky Greene, and herself).
"The plan is to stick together as long as possible," she said.
Like Miranda, Tubbs is also optimistic about victory.
"We definitely wanna win," Tubbs said.
"I think we should win, we can win, we’re expected to win."
The Gators will be without their fifth place finisher at Covered Bridge in freshman Caitlin McQuilkin-Bell, who is in Wales representing her native country of New Zealand in the junior World Mountain Running Championships.
The Mountain Dew Invitational begins at 7 a.m. on Saturday at the Mark Bostick Golf Course, with the men racing in an 8K at 7:55 and the women in a 5K at 8:30.
Follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri
Jimmy Clark races during the 2013 Southeastern Conference Cross Country Championships at the Mark Bostick Golf Course