Benton runs to head of the class

Freshman Christa Benton has taken the USF cross country team by storm.

In a very short time, she has posted impressive times throughout the season and has emerged as one of the top runners on a veteran team. Two weekends ago, she won the Conference USA Freshman of the Year award at the conference championships (20 minutes, 53 seconds). She was a key contributor to the team’s second-place finish. She finished 16th, one place out of earning All-conference honors.

Earlier this season, Benton finished eighth at the Florida Invitational in Tallahassee (22:10.2) and also had impressive times at the Pre-NCAA Meet (22:38) and the Auburn Invitational (22:38).

Benton started running in eighth grade at Keswick Christian School in St. Petersburg. There, she became a standout in track and cross country. She was a five-time state champion, three times in cross country and twice in the two-mile. She was twice a national qualifier and an All-American in cross country.

“I went out for the team basically because my friends did it,” Benton said. “I really wasn’t into it, but they talked me into it. It was really fun. As soon as I started, I enjoyed it a lot.”

Benton’s success in high school brought her a great deal of attention from colleges around the country. Schools such as Florida State, North Carolina and Columbia actively recruited her. Many schools in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama also were very interested in Benton.

“I decided to come to USF because it was close to home. This was the only recruiting visit that I actually took. Everyone here was very nice, so I liked it,” said Benton.

Like all other freshmen, Benton had to make adjustments to the differences between high school and college. She came to a very successful cross country program and to a women’s team with very high expectations.

“When I was in high school, I was used to being the best on my team. Now, it’s kind of nice running as a group and having people there to help you with your training,” said Benton.

The level of competition and the training regimen has also been an adjustment for Benton. The team ran more miles during training than she was accustomed to in high school. She also had no experience in the weight room, which is a major part of the team’s training. Her more experienced teammates were quick to help her out and show her the ropes of running at the college level.

“When she (Benton) first got here, she had never done weights before. She really didn’t have a clue,” junior teammate Cori Kill said. “I helped her with her form in the weight room, and it has really shown in her running.”

Benton’s teammates and coaches have noticed the adjustment. Many have been very impressed by improvements that she has made throughout the season. She has been very receptive to advice from her teammates.

“Christa has done a really excellent job. Of all of the freshmen, she has been the most successful in the weight room. She trains just as intensely as the seniors. She is a coach’s dream,” said coach Heather Curtiss.

Benton, with the help of her teammates, has become a very consistent performer. She looks forward to next year, when she will be able to pass on her new experiences to next year’s freshmen.

“Try your hardest at practice and have fun with it, it is one of the most important things,” said Benton, on what young runners need to do to be successful.

“If you don’t really enjoy it, then you’re not going to do your best.”

Bulls head to regionals

Benton will compete in her first regional championship this week as the team travels to Tuscaloosa, Ala. Last year, the women’s team finished first and earned a berth in the national championships. Benton will be a key component in the team’s quest to repeat as regional champions.

The men’s team has made steady improvements throughout the season. Curtiss said the men’s team had an excellent race in the conference championship. Impressive finishes by young runners like Jim Vitale has given the team a new sense of confidence going into their final meet of the season.

“Last week was a stepping stone for the men. They now have a hunger to have another good race. I am looking for good performances from everyone,” said Curtiss.

Key competition from the women’s side will come from Georgia Tech and FSU. The Bulls will compete for the top two finishes which will earn them a berth in the NCAA Championships. There are also two berths for top-finishing individuals.

“We have a very good chance to win. If we run like we are capable of, we will be champions,” said Curtiss.

  • James Tai covers cross country and can be reached at