Paul Baur considers the Pine Crest School girls cross country team fortunate.
Like most of Florida, his program, located on the East Coast in Fort Lauderdale, was hit by Hurricane Irma in September. But the Panthers avoided much of the hardship that bashed the state in areas like Miami and other coastal regions out west, ushering in flooding and long-standing power outages. To date, over $62 million of damage has been reported because of the storm.
In the grand scheme of things, Pine Crest was fine; the team spent seven days out of school and was forced to train on its own, but missed the brunt of the destruction.
"You can't possibly complain about it when you see the devastation in the islands the Keys," Baur said. "We just lost power. We had some trees down. But we'll survive."
It did do one thing, though: it created a tighter window for the Panthers to hit their season-wide goals, which are to win their second-straight Class 2A championship in Florida and qualify for NXN for the first time in program history.
A year ago, Pine Crest finished fifth at NXN Southeast, failing to earn an automatic berth for NXN or even a chance to be considered for a wildcard spot. Freshman Tsion Yared qualified on her own.
"They have a bad taste in their mouth from that experience," Baur said. "They always keep that in the back of their minds. We have goals for the season, and we want to do everything in our power to create that chance."
So in some ways, their season rebirth begins at the FSU Pre-State Invitational in Tallahassee on Saturday. To date, they've had just two races under their belt.
But the program is coming off a dominant effort at the Hurricane Irma XC Invitational on September 23, where the team averaged a time of 19:10 and compiled an 89-second spread.
The Panthers are entered into the elite girls race at Apalachee Regional Park, which is Florida's state course. They missed last year's event due to Hurricane Matthew and won the elite race in 2015.
"The girls are definitely hungry at this point and excited about racing," Baur said. "They love running in Tallahassee and they have great memories there. They know the course well."
It's true, too, that this is a team still on the cusp of national relevance. With the addition of freshman Mahdere Yared, the younger sister of Tsion, the Panthers are in even better position to challenge for top billing in the state and beyond. The Panthers have five underclassmen in their top six, with their top four all freshmen or sophomores.
The invitational itself was cobbled together after an annual high school meet at at the University of Florida -- the Mt. Dew Invitational -- was canceled due to weather. Local timing companies stepped up -- after noticing most teams had hotels blocked out in Gainesville -- and created a meet from scratch.
Sometimes forgotten in the national scope with programs in New York and California taking top billing, Florida no doubt can hang with some of the best. The Panthers have had a state winner in Class 2A for four out of the past five years.
And the new kid on the block, Mahdere, won the Hurricane Irma Invitational in 18:38.98. Her sister, Tsion, was third. Pine Crest put its first four runners in the first five places, with every athlete registering times at 19:09.70 or faster.
But the Panthers are still looking to shore up their fifth, sixth, and seventh runners and that will be critical if they're going to have a shot at qualifying for NXN in December.
"I said all along, even when the preseason rankings came out, that we were on the bubble," Baur said. "But we knew had a good start. We know we have to perform well even to be considered."
Baur knew all of this beforehand.
So one big key for training this season has been at a location 45 minutes away, on a former garbage dump site that was recreated into a park.
"It's a park called Vista View and there's a pretty substantial hill there," Baur said.
Florida isn't known for its hilly terrain. The entire state is flat as can be, aside from man-made bridges and hills in public parks. But Baur did find a significant incline at Vista View. It stretches about 300 meters uphill.
Over the last two weeks, the Pine Crest girls have been going through a particularly difficult phase of training; they're ultimately working hard through FSU to make up for any lost ground because of Irma -- and Vista View is a big addition to that.
"We've been heading out there at least once a week throughout the season," Baur said. So the goal is to be prepared for the hills at state -- there's one at the FSU course -- and we really want to emphasize attacking the hill and not letting the hill take away our game plan. We want to use it to our advantage."
Baur isn't too concerned about the lack of racing, either.
"I don't think we'll have to be worried about being burnt-out," he said. "We still have our goals that we want to accomplish."
But Pine Crest's focus will be more driven from this point forward. With each race critical toward the larger cause, the Panthers will find out soon what they're made of at the national level.
The FSU Invitational, Baur said, will be a good indication of just where his team stands.
"The girls know FSU is a good stepping stone," he said. "We'll go out there and perform well. And that may open people's eyes to what's really going on down here in Florida."