The Wharton Wildcats put together the best cross country team in the Tampa Bay area in 2015. The Wildcats took third place at the Class 3A State championships behind then-sophomore Alisha Deschenes, who finished 21st overall.

The team’s next best finisher was junior Rania Samhouri, who was 30th.

With such key runners expected to return, the future of Wharton cross country looked good for 2016.

But, head coach Anthony Triana did not know at the time that only one of his top state finishers would ever run again for the Wildcats. The one that has, however, has seamlessly stepped into her role as the team’s No. 1 runner.

Samhouri, who was the team’s No. 5 just two seasons ago, is headed to the State meet as an individual after finishing fifth at the Class 4A, Region 2 meet on Oct. 28, finishing the difficult 5K (3.1-mile) course at Holloway Park in Lakeland in 19 minutes, 13.82 seconds, 34 seconds slower than her personal best.

The 2016 Florida High School Athletic Association’s State championships will be run tomorrow at Apalachee Regional Park in Tallahassee, and Florida State University is the host. Samhouri will begin her quest to top last year’s finish at 9:40 a.m.

The Wharton girls team did not qualify for a return to state, finishing eighth in the Region. Only the top six teams and top 15 individual finishers qualify for state.

Deschenes, a soccer player first who stars for both the Wharton side and one of the top club teams in the state, decided that her junior year, the most important from a recruiting standpoint, was too important for her not to focus on soccer.

After trying to balance it all over the summer, the grueling club schedule just presented too much of a conflict and Deschenes stepped away from the cross country team.

The good news, however, is that Samhouri was ready for the challenge. “When you lose your number one, you have to have a backup plan,” Triana said. “But, even before Alisha left, Rania was already starting to step up to that number one spot.”

As a sophomore, Samhouri made dramatic improvement all season long.

She was the team’s number five runner, with a top time of 20:58 early in the season, but by the Pre-State meet at FSU towards the end of the season, she was well under 20 minutes, posting a 19:44.

This season, she already has run 18:40 at the North Port Invitational. That ranks her in the top-10 in her classification heading into States.

Samhouri had a great rabbit to chase this season in defending State champ and State meet record holder Bailey Hertenstein of Riverview.

It was chasing Hertenstein, Tampa Bay’s best cross country runner, that helped push Samhouri to the 18:40 she ran at North Port, and chasing Hertenstein again at the Hillsborough County Championships helped Samhouri run her second-best time of the season, covering the 3.1-mile course in 18:48.

“When there’s someone in front of you, you can’t help but try and close the gap,” Samhouri said.

Gaps have been just what Samhouri has been closing all season.

She broke through for the Class 4A, District 6 title on her way to qualifying for state. At Al Lopez Park in Tampa, she broke from the start line and raced to the front, and despite some competition midway through by a pair of Steinbrenner runners, she managed to pull away and finish first by nine seconds.

If you ask Samhouri about her individual accomplishments, she’ll deftly defer you to what her team has accomplished, which included a third-place finish at Districts.

“At the end of the day, it’s about what can I do to make the team better?,” Samhouri said.

Proof, perhaps, that Samhouri has grown as both a runner, and a leader.

“She wants that leadership role, we have trust and a confidence level with each other,” Triana said. “She knows and speaks to every girl on the team, she supports (not only) the varsity girls, but the kids on JV, too.”

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