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Chasing the Spotlight
Despite the loss of two national cross country champions, the D.C.-area cross country runners won’t be overlooked this fall.
Not after Kate Murphy ran the third-fastest high school 1,500 when she qualified for the U.S. Olympic Trials. She made it to the semifinals a week before she finished 12th in the 3,000 meters at the world junior championships.
This follows a year when she won the Nike Cross Southeast meet and a state individual title. Coming back for her senior year at Lake Braddock, she headlines a local group of girls who have been getting a lot of attention for their exploits on courses near and far, including Patriot senior Rachel McArthur, who was an alternate to the world junior championships this summer in the 1,500 meters. Seven of 10 girls on the post-season All-RunWashington team return for the 2016 season.
The boys, on the other hand, are all coming out of the shadow cast by Drew Hunter and his 2016 classmates, with only Richard Montgomery senior Rohann Asfaw returning from last year’s All-RunWashington team.
This year’s cross country landscape inspired the most engaging discussion among our coaches panel that we’ve had in the past four years. They met after the three state meets to pick the 10 boys and 10 girls who represent the best of the D.C. metro area. They also picked the seven boys and seven girls from D.C., Maryland and Virginia. Virginia again dominates the All-RunWashington preseason team, with nine of 10 boys and eight of 10 girls.
The coaches selected the most promising teams heading into the season, though they will be no surprise to anyone who saw last November’s state championships.
Once again, Maryland and Virginia will hold their state meets over the same weekend — Nov. 11-12, with the Maryland and D.C. private schools racing that Saturday, a week after all D.C. schools meet for their state championship.
Page Lester – National Cathedral School – Junior
Page Lester, the National Cathedral School triathlete who moonlights as a runner, won both the 800 and 1,600 at the ISL championship, after trailing now-graduated Taylor Knibb across the line at the Maryland-D.C. Private School cross country championships.
A shoulder injury kept her from swimming normally, so she spent four months just kicking in the pool.
“It wasn’t very fun, but my legs are stronger now,” she said.
Her endurance has been improving as she’s added distance to her weekly long runs.
“I used to do four, maybe five miles, now I’m up to 10 or 11,” she said. “I’ll run three afternoons a week, plus my long run,” on top of five or six swims and three or four bike rides weekly.
Highlights – Nike Cross Southeast: 45th, MD-DC Private School Championships: 2nd
1600 meters: 4:57.7; 3200 meters: 10:47.88
Abigail Green – Walter Johnson – Junior
Abigail Green emerged from a swimming pool and shot to the front of Walter Johnson’s team as a freshman, helping the Wildcats to the last two Maryland 4A championships. Now a junior, she’s aiming to lead the team to its fourth straight title, while also targeting the indi
vidual crown, which Annapolis senior Maria Coffin won last year.
It’s a rivalry she’s embracing.
“Maria’s very consistent with her running, and I ran my best time when we ran even then pushed it at the end,” she said. “When I was a freshman, I’d just go out fast all the time, that’s all I really knew how to do,” she said. “I didn’t know any better, sometimes I pushed a little too hard. I can follow other people’s lead now, but I also know how to run my own race.”
She broke 11 minutes in the 3,200 meters, getting down to 10:37, which changed the way she looked at racing.
“I broke a huge barrier for me when I broke 11 so early on, and breaking it every time I ran the 32. It helped me feel like I was on a higher level after that,” she said. “To see a different number at the start of your results changed things more than I thought,” she said.
Highlights – Nike Cross Southeast: 31st; Maryland 4A championships: 2nd
1600m: 4:59.62; 3200m: 10:37.60
Ahmed Hassan – Oakton – Junior
Ahmed Hassan had been cut from the basketball team his freshman year at Oakton when he decided to take his then-unapparent talents to the indoor track team, a week after the season started
“Coach cut me some slack and let me run,” he said. “A lot of the older guys helped me out. I shuffled my feet a lot when I started.”
He learned to fix that, and ran 4:32 for 1,600 meters his freshman year. But coming into his first cross country season as a sophomore, without the familiarity and base training to go along with the distance, left him ill-prepared “I was getting rocked in workouts,” he said. “It was a major adjustment to the mileage.”
It all paid off when his 1,600 meter time dropped to 4:17.56 to finish second in the outdoor state meet. He had started his track season with a 4:41 in January.
Highlights – Virginia 6A XC: 28th
1600m: 4:17.56 (2nd in Va. 6A); 3200m: 9:19.22
Heather Holt – George Marshall – Junior
Emma Wolcott – Tuscarora – Junior
Despite their polite demeanors, Heather Holt and Emma Wolcott grabbed the spotlight in Virginia’s 5A division, winning the individual titles in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and setting up two more years of competitive races between the two. Now juniors, they’re also leading teams that could match up well at the state meet, after Wolcott’s Tuscarora team won and Holt’s George Marshall team took fifth.
Holt avenged her state meet loss to Wolcott and nearly made the Foot Locker final in the process, finishing six seconds back from the last qualifying spot. She’s in her third year of running, after playing soccer, and she’s picking up the nuances outside of the 5k races.
“I’ve gotten more experience racing, but now I observe people’s demeanors before races,” she said. “It’s helped me relax.”
She went on to win the indoor and outdoor state 1,600 meter titles, the latter in 4:54.28.
Wolcott, on the other hand, is more of a distance runner, hitting 10:39 for 3,200 meters midseason during her abbreviated spring, good enough to be the fourth fastest time among returning Virginia runners.
As a result, she’s a fan of more difficult courses that test her strength, where she can build a lead and tire the kickers out.
“I don’t have a great kick so I like to put as much distance between me and anyone behind me so they can’t surprise me,” she said.
She started running for fun in seventh grade, but when she reached high school, things started to come together for Wolcott.
“I like the competitive aspect, pushing yourself, seeing how good you are,” she said. “Once I got to race I just kept finishing close to the front.”
Holt highlights: Virginia 5A XC: 2nd, Footlocker South: 11th
800m: 2:11.30 1600m: 4:54.28 (1st VA 5A) 3200m: 10:42.13
Wolcott highlights: Virginia 5A XC: 1st, Footlocker South: 22nd
Saurav Velleleth – Thomas Jefferson – Senior
For Saurav Velleleth and his Thomas Jefferson teammates, running is a fun reprieve from their science and technology magnet school’s grueling curriculum.
“School takes up so much of your life, there’s so much homework,” he said. “For a lot of us, we use running as a way to take our minds off of academics.”
He has an added complication of commuting from his home in Loudoun County, about 45 minutes each way, where he got his start running with the Nova Athletic Club, directed by the Hunters. But they can’t turn their focus on and off, and that’s why the Colonials notched a runner-up finish in Virginia’s 5A division last fall, with Velleleth leading the way in third place.
“We take our academic dedication and apply it to the sport,” he said. “We’re pretty motivated on our own.“ He followed that up with a second place finish in the 3,200 meters in the spring, after winning the indoor 3,200.
But what would his life be without running? “I’d be playing basketball, getting home at 5 instead of 8. Living like normal kids. I don’t want that.”
Highlights – Virginia 5A: 3rd
1600m – 4:16.25 3200m- 9:22.10 (2nd 5A)
Patrick Lynch – George Marshall – Senior
George Marshall senior Patrick Lynch put everything together during his junior year, culminating in a ninth place finish in the Virginia 5A meet. He was enthusiastic about the sport from the start, though. Without a fall sport as a freshman, he showed up to the first day of tryouts and loved it.
“I liked that, when with other sports you had to hold back, with running, you can just put it all out there,” he said.
But there was a sport way to run, and he came around to it in 2015.
“I finally figured out how to push and when to push,” he said. That savvy helped him hit 4:25.93 for 1,600 meters this spring.
Highlights: Virginia 5A XC: 10th
1600m: 4:25.93 3200m: 9:38.07
Sean Grimm – James Madison – Senior
Sean Grimm led the way for James Madison’s surprising runner-up finish in the 6A race last fall with his 19th place finish. The Warhawks look to challenge Lake Braddock this fall, with four of their top five returning.
Grimm’s journey to a pair of spikes started when he gave up baseball after eighth grade.
“I got bored sitting around when I was supposed to be playing a sport,” he said, explaining why he would probably be swimming or cycling if he didn’t run.
He’s an endurance nut.
As he’s matured, he’s refined his approach to competition.
“There’s a tactical part of the races,” he said. “I’m learning to use different strategies and it feels like a whole new sport when you do that.” He showed mastery of nuance in finishing eighth in the outdoor 3,200 meters at the Virginia 6A meet. And running has benefitted him outside of his athletic life. “I’m not normally academically motivated, but after I run I feel like I have a lot more focus,” he said. “It’s good for me all around.”
Highlights: Virginia XC 6A: 19th
1600m: 4:26.82 3200m: 9:33.70
Conor Lyons – Lake Braddock – Senior
A transplant from Indiana, Lyons played a big, or tall, part in the Bruins repeating as team champions. He misses the slower pace of the Midwest, but that didn’t stop him from finishing eighth in the Virginia 6A race to help Lake Braddock defend its title.
“We have a lot more speed-based stuff here. I never ran a 200 before I came here,” he said. “I don’t like intervals and I know they make me better.” They helped gain the fitness that carried him to the 3,200 championship this spring in a PR of 9:16.80.
If he wasn’t a runner?
“I’d probably be watching videos on YouTube.”
Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 8th Nike Cross Southeast: 49th
1600m: 4:16.97 3200m: 9:16.80 (VA 6A: 1st)
Casey Kendall – Oakton – Senior
The Virginia 6A cross country championship race was run on guts and teamwork for Oakton’s Casey Kendall.
“Cross country was kind of disappointing,” she said. “I had a few quick races but had some rough ones toward the middle and the end.”
Injuries and low iron couldn’t keep her down all the time, though. She and then-senior Jill Bracaglia finished together, with Kendall given the edge for third place in the results.
“If she wasn’t in the race, I don’t think I could have done that,” she said. “That’s just teamwork there. That was the hardest race of my life.”
Bracaglia is gone, as are Kendall’s earlier role models who graduated, including her sister Kara, leaving her the undisputed leader.
“I like being captain. I’m really extroverted so it works out well,” she said. “I like checking up on everyone in practice, making sure they’re in line and doing what they’re supposed to, but then on race day keeping their nerves down. “I tell them, ‘It’s just a race, do what you have to do. Do what we’ve trained for.’”
Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 3rd
1600: 4:58.88 (VA 6A: 5th) 3200m: 10:41.56
Danielle Bartholomew – Osbourn Park – Senior
Danielle Bartholomew broke out at the Oatlands Invitational, finishing third and introducing Northern Virginia to the Osbourn Park junior who had spent two years toiling with injuries.
“I was a little freaked out by all of it,” she said of the new standard for her performances.
“I ran for fun before, but then once I started running fast, I felt like I had to keep getting better,” she said. “I was worried about disappointing people. Now there were expectations.”
She’s managed those expectations, while also justifying people’s confidence. She finished seventh in the Virginia 6A cross country meet, then second in the outdoor 3,200 meters.
That success has bought her a little benefit of the doubt from her older sister, with whom Danielle creates costumes for cosplay conventions and now understands Danielle’s commitment.
“We usually make the costumes without patterns, so it’s a creative outlet,” she said. “It’s a good balance from all the running.”
Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 7th
1600m: 5:24.66 3200m: 10:59.29 (VA 6A: 1st)
Rohann Asfaw – Richard Montgomery – Junior
Rohann Asfaw went from a gawky teenager hoping to lose some weight to a near-national qualifier in just a few years. He’s been doing that on relatively-low mileage, about 35 miles week, but with a lot of intensity. He was one place away from making the Nike Cross National meet last fall.
“I’ll start boosting my mileage to get ready for college running, but for now I’ve done alright with short, faster stuff.”
He’s done more than alright. Asfaw dominated Montgomery County and nearly won the state 4A cross country title. He later avenged his loss to Dulaney’s Eric Walz in winning both the 1,600 and 3,200 at the outdoor state meet, and he’s the favorite to ascend to the title this year. He ran 9:11 at the New Balance indoor national meet and he was one place away from qualifying for Nike Cross Nationals.
“It was exciting to finish at the top of a lot of races, but I really want to make to Nike (Cross Nationals),” he said.
Highlights: Maryland 4A: 2nd Nike Cross Southeast: 6th
1600m: 4:19.10 2 mile: 9:11.08
Rachel McArthur – Patriot – Senior
The last two years of Rachel McArthur’s cross country career have taken her all over the emotional spectrum. An incredible streak toward the end of her sophomore year carried her to state and Nike Southeast titles. She and Kate Murphy ran the national race side by side, not pushing the pace because, as 10th graders, they were looking at two more chances.
“I just blew through everything and didn’t have a care in the world,” she said.
But as a junior, a quad tear bedeviled her for weeks, forcing the Pioneers to gamble on trying to make the state meet without her and allowing McArthur another week to recover. It didn’t pay off, but she was able to make it back for the Nike Cross Southeast meet.
“I was feeling fine and then in the last stretch I collapsed,” she said. “I crawled around then got up, walked across the finish line and passed out.
“Just a little.”
She made it, but the national meet was a long shot that again didn’t pay off.
“It was really tough to be sitting back and watching people run so well and not be able to be in those races,” she said. To add more injury to that, she later broke her sacrum when a friend jumped on her back. “I felt the crack, and knew I was going to be out,” she said. “I just didn’t know how much pool running I’d end up doing. It was awful. It was just really upsetting.”
That said, she came back in time, and in shape, for the indoor state meet, where she ran on the winning 4×800 team, then carried that success into the outdoor season, finishing second in the Penn Relays mile and winning the 800 state title, and edging Murphy en route to running 2:06.55.
Throughout, though, she was still not mentally present in a lot of races.
“I didn’t feel like I was racing, sometimes,” she said. “If I’m not mentally there, it feels like the race didn’t happen.”
Then she avoided a fall at the Brooks PR Invitational mile to finish third in 4:45.72 before also finishing third in the US junior championships in the 1,500 meters.
Even with that happy ending to the season, she knows the next season will be hard, with her friend and rival Murphy running so well, and there are pieces left to put together, especially in her mental approach to racing.
“I don’t really have faith in what I can do,” she said. “I know I can push myself, but after the last year, I need to prove to myself that I can run the way I remember.”
Highlights: Nike Cross Southeast: 5th
800m: 2:06.55 (1st VA 6A) 1600m: 4:48.81 3200m: 10:35.19
Brandon McGorty – Chantilly – Senior
Of all of the high school runners in the United States, only one can claim to having beaten Hunter in the last year. That’s Chantilly senior Brandon McGorty, who edged him in a mid-season 800 meter race. That was much more McGorty’s wheelhouse than more than three miles of cross country racing. But toward the end of last fall, he started to value the sport for its opportunity.
“I basically use cross country to get in shape for track,” he said. “It’s not my strong suit.”
The night before last year’s 6A state championship, his father Kevin, a two-time Olympic Trials decathlon qualifier, convinced him to give the grassy race a chance on its own merits. He was in the championship, why not try.
“I was about ready to get started with indoors, but he reminded me that this race was an opportunity and I came in with a clear head,” he said. “I used to hang onto the pack and then give it what I had at the end, but I kept fading. I think I’m going to start hanging back and kicking more.”
Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 6th
800m: 1:48:58 (VA 6A: 1st, USATF Jr, 5th) 1600m: 4:13.41 (VA 6A 1st) 1 mile 4:08.58
Derek Johnson – Tuscarora – Junior
Derek Johnson doesn’t go in for that. He sat and kicked early on in his career at Tuscarora, but that was just as much due to his inexperience. He signed up for the team with little experience. And it was a little rough.
“For the first couple of weeks, I was sleeping all the time. It was so hard,” he said. He stuck with it, though, thanks to the influence of his teammates and his coach, Troy Harry. “He’s the best coach I’ve had in any sport,” he said.
He embraces cross country for the chance it gives him to work on his strength and use a course’s difficulty to his advantage.
“It’s tough to compare times in cross country,” he said. “You see the times people run — someone’s in the low 16s and you wonder if it’s the kind or the course. If we just wanted fast times, we’d run 5ks on the track. I love Oatlands, with its hills. It’s a real cross country course.”
Highlights: Virginia 5A XC: 6th
1600m: 4:31.97 3200m: 9:39.77
Colton Bogucki – Loudoun Valley – Junior
Peter Morris – Loudoun Valley – Junior
Loudoun Valley likely has a better team now than when the country’s best runner wore its uniform. Despite Drew Hunter’s graduation following an undefeated cross country season, most of the remaining Vikings are underclassmen. Without Drew, the Vikings swept the top seven spots in the conference 3,200 meters, with five of them underclassmen and all of them under 10:10. Hunter was the only top-five scorer, at the Virginia 4A state meet, older than a sophomore last fall. Colton Bogucki, Peter Morris, Jacob Hunter and Chase Dawson are setting up a foundation for another two years, at least, of dominance.
Bogucki and Morris, both juniors, ran nearly identical times this spring and finished fifth and sixth at the cross country state meet, then ran very similar times in the spring, with Morris hitting 4:20.64 and 9:23.21 for 1,600 and 3,200, respectively, and 4:21.20, 9:23.65 for Bogucki.
Bogucki discovered his affinity for running at summer camp, where, at age 10, he finished a five mile run feeling much better than expected.
“For a 10-year-old, I did pretty well,” he said. “I don’t know why I tried it in the first place.”
Following his brother to the sport, he joined Vikings coaches Joan and Marc Hunter’s year-round Nova Athletic Club, which has spawned the careers of many of the top runners from Loudoun County recently, including TJ’s Velleleth. Nova is basically a sophisticated farm team for the Vikings’ program, including sponsoring indoor track at Loudoun Valley — a first for a Loudoun County school.
Over the past two years, Bogucki has added mental strength to his physical growth.
“I learned how to push myself mentally,” he said. “That confidence gives you a great advantage because you know you can go a little deeper.”
Morris also followed a sibling into the sport: his twin sister, Natalie. Like Grimm, he left baseball behind.
“She wanted to do it, so I went along,” he said. “I hadn’t run competitively before.”
“It was a sport we could do together,” Natalie said.
Peter gets a lot of his confidence from looking back at the longer runs he has logged.
“Getting to longer runs helped me build a lot of strength,” he said.
The team’s success isn’t a surprise to Morris and Bogucki.
“We have some of the best coaches around,” Bogucki said.
Morris looked outward.
“We’re a dedicated team, and when we do well, people notice,” he said. “They want to be part of a great team.”
Bogucki Highlights: Virginia 4A XC: 5th
1600m: 4:21.20 (VA 4A: 3rd) 3200m: 9:23.65
Morris Highlights: Virginia 4A XC: 6th
1600m: 4:20.64 3200m: 9:23.21 (VA 4A: 3rd)
Sarah Daniels – Junior – Lake Braddock
Kate Murphy – Senior – Lake Braddock
Emily Schiesl – Senior – Lake Braddock
Sarah Daniels has a similar rationale to Morris’ as to why Lake Braddock’s girls team has grown.
“We’re the most successful team in the school,” she said. “People want to be a part of that.”
That’s the way coach Mike Mangan likes it. He tells runners to bring their friends out for the team, even if they aren’t fast. Then again, many end up becoming fast.
Lake Braddock has three girls on the All-RunWashington team and one on the Virginia team this fall. The Bruins return all of their scorers and all but one of their top seven, and figure to be one of the best teams in the country.
Kate Murphy has been a part of that, but she’s just one scorer. That said, she will be probably be first in most races.
She has seen a lot in her three years of running. Portland twice, Hayward Field, Bydgoszcz, Poland. There’s still more, though.
“Tokyo 2020,” she says with assurance, looking forward to lining up to race the 1,500 meters.
And she didn’t see the postseason of her first indoor track campaign, after Mangan didn’t see the kind of preparation and effort in practice he thought she was capable of. It’s not exactly Michael Jordan being cut from the basketball team, but it got her attention.
The race that stamped Murphy’s ticket to this year’s Olympic Trials showed a lot of promise for where she can take her running career. The 62-second last lap, for example, that carried her to 4:07.21 and the third-fastest time in high school history.
“When you get somewhere in a race you’ve never been before, it’s a little scary to push, because you might blow up,” she said.
She didn’t blow up when she took over for the rabbit ahead of schedule, and the experience on the national and international stages will only make her more dangerous on the cross country course.
While she considers herself a track runner primarily, Murphy appreciates the strength building that is the routine in the cross country season.
“They complement each other: track makes you faster, cross makes you tougher and builds your form,” she said. “No matter what season, I just have to put in the work.”
She was formerly a field hockey player and if she wasn’t running, she says she’d be “ballin,’” but cross country and track, in retrospect, seemed pre-ordained.
“I think running found me,” she said. “I’ve always been athletic, but this is a sport where you can take control and be in touch with what your body can do.”
As her ambitions for the track grow, she uses the cold numbers as a grounding mechanism.
“You need to be confident but remember that there’s always someone better than you,” she said.
Though she is near the pinnacle of high school running, Murphy doesn’t draw her inspiration from the professionals. She gets fired up among her peers.
“I look up to my teammates when I see how much pain they push through,” she said. “Every day you see someone do something they couldn’t do before.”
Daniels and Emily Schiesl were 11th and 10th, respectively, at the 6A state meet, and they’re back, with hopes of finishing higher and driving the Bruins’ score lower.
As much as they want to win, the team has built a positive atmosphere, which is tough when only seven runners get to lineup at championship races.
Schiesl saw it during her first days on the team. “I was excited,” she said. “I thought it would be more cutthroat but everyone was supportive of each other. It’s more of a family than I expected.”
Daniels pointed to the team’s tradition of writing letters to the other members of the postseason team as something special to her.
“It’s motivating to know how many people support you,” she said. “You don’t forget that on race day when things hurt and you’re looking for a reason to go on.
Daniels Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 10th, Nike Cross Southeast: 29th
1600m: 5:15.03 3200m: 11:04.65
Murphy Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 1st, Nike Cross Southeast: 1st
800m: 2:06.70 (VA 6A: 2nd) 1500m: 4:07.21 (reached Olympic Trials semifinals) 3000m: 9:17.01 (USATF Jr: 1st)
Schiesl Highlights: Virginia 6A XC: 11th, Nike Cross Southeast: 23rd
1600m: 5:14.46 3200m: 11:01.92
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of RunWashington.