As last season came to a close in North Carolina, Loudoun Valley’s disappointment felt cushioned by potential.
Though the Vikings failed to make Nike Cross Nationals, they were on the cusp. They made up ground on a team that had beaten them soundly seven weeks earlier and one junior, Peter Morris, had qualified for the finals with another, Colton Bogucki, one spot away. Jacob Hunter, just a sophomore, was 20th.
“We weren’t good enough to go,” said coach Marc Hunter. “It would have taken one of those other teams to fall off. We ran well but we didn’t run great, but everybody improved, and as a coach, that means everything.”
With all of those runners and more returning, the clouds that hung over the team started to fade.
Then, in December, they parted. Jacob Hunter got a message from a kid he knew from Pennsylvania.
“Hey Jacob, we’re moving to Virginia and we might be teammates,” read the message from Sam Affolder, who had just recently finished second to his older brother Noah at the Foot Locker Northeast regional meet.
“Jacob, someone got ahold of Sam’s phone and was playing a prank on you,” Marc recalled telling him.
Then a month later, at the Millrose Games, the Affolder family made some serious inquiries into where they should settle in Northern Virginia for two years while Sam’s father is stationed at the Pentagon.
“We looked around closer to the Pentagon, but my parents knew I wanted to run at Loudoun Valley,” Affolder said. “He chose the long bus ride so I could go here.”
Marc Hunter, who commutes to Springfield from Purcellville, leveled with the elder Affolder.
“It sucks, there’s no way around that,” he said. “It’s a few hours out of your day,” but that’s the kind of sacrifice many people make to live out there.
“I honestly thought we lost him then.”
But for the Affolders, it’s a chance to do something for Sam, who has gone along from move to move, never staying anywhere longer than four years, in a house off of the installations, with a pool. He called running for Loudoun Valley “a dream come true.”
With Affolder’s transfer public in April, and a 9:02 3,200 meters to his credit, expectations shot up for Loudoun Valley. By the end of July, four different national rankings favored the Vikings.
Marc Hunter is a little worried about the pre-season hype, though his wife, coach Joan Hunter, sees enthusiasm in the boys, rather than stress.
“I’ve told the guys, this is going to be harder than you think,” Marc Hunter said. “The number one team all last season got second at nationals. They got blown away. We’re a broken wrist, a gym class concussion, a case of Lyme disease [all of which have befallen LV runners] from blowing this.”
“We’ve been working with these guys for four years now. Without Sam, without Connor (Wells, a junior transfer from Freedom), we were going to be a top 5-8 team in the country already.”
Joan takes a systematic look at it all, focusing on personal development and challenges that will combat complacency.
“We’re just trying to build them up, keep them healthy and run more miles this fall than they did last year,” she said. “Increase some of the intensity and have them ready to go in November and December. Take advantage of some of the opportunities they’re going to have at a couple of meets to run against other strong teams.”
They’ll get one of those opportunities at the Great American Cross Country Festival, where they finished third last year. In the meantime, they’ll try to survive and improve through the fall.
Morris, last year’s 4A champion, sees races as challenges to see how well the team can run as a pack and how well the team can take control of races.
The Vikings were no slouches before, at least in the last few seasons. Since the Hunters took over the program in 2014, the roster will have almost tripled and the boys have won two Virginia 4A titles, each time placing three runners in the top six– Morris, Bogucki and one Hunter each year (Drew in 2015 and Jacob in 2016). At the same time, the girls team has finished as runner up the last two years, with Morris’ twin sister Natalie also taking second individually in 2016. Over that time, Loudoun Valley has captured four straight individual state titles: three for Drew Hunter and one for Peter Morris.
Even though Drew, once a Foot Locker champion and now running professionally, is no longer on the team, his influence is still instrumental to getting Loudoun Valley where it is. Had he not shown promise and commitment to running as a sophomore, his parents would not have resumed their high school coaching careers and gone all-in on making the Vikings a powerhouse.
The team’s success has fed its growth. With 140 kids on the roster, “We’re over 10 percent of the school,” Marc said. “Part of that’s the Drew effect. They say, ‘Wow, cross country is cool. Why wouldn’t I want to run cross country. Why would I, a 150 pound kid, do football?'”
But now, with Drew heading off to train in Colorado, it’s an opportunity to the team, and some of its individuals, to make their own history.
“We’re not in the Drew Hunter era anymore, we’ve shifted toward being a complete team,” said Affolder, who despite six months of communication with his new teammates is still getting his first look at the team in action and still brings an outsider’s perspective. “I know it’s a situation where there won’t be much disappointment from everyone else if someone doesn’t win an individual title as long as the team does well.”
Those expectations would seem to weigh on Jacob Hunter, who exceeded some of Drew’s freshman times but rejects expectations that he will keep that up, year-for-year.
“I’m my own person, and I’m satisfied with that,” he said. “I love the team aspect of this sport, the way your fifth man is just as important as your first, and the feeling you get after running a really hard 5k. It’s like nothing I’ve felt in sports.”
He ran a 4:17 1,600 meters this spring.
Morris (who ran 9:12.65 for 3,200 meters this spring) and Bogucki (9:13 3,200 and a 4:14 1,600) have dedicated themselves to aiding their recovery and body maintenance recently.
Bogucki, who remains motivated by that finisher ahead of him at Nike Cross Southeast who got to go to nationals, has cut back on meals out, and despite a demanding academic schedule his junior year, is dedicated to getting more sleep.
Morris has taken a keen interest in nutrition and cooking, particularly experimenting in the kitchen, with a focus on “basically anything you can put in an omelette.”
Those four will likely be joined as scorers by junior Jacob Windle, with senior Chase Dawson, sophomore Carlson, and junior Wells.
Joan Hunter hopes to see all of her runners increase their focus on the middle of the race, where at times they have let the pack get away from them.
“We’re strong on the starts and their kicks, but they fall asleep sometimes in the second mile,” she said.
While freak injuries can derail a season, like sophomore Kevin Carlson’s broken wrist, the Hunters don’t take any risks with overuse injuries.
“We’ve been injury free because we spend an inordinate amount of time on prevention,” Joan Hunter said. “In our first year, we would have 20-30 injured kids, and that’s who Marc would spend all of his time working with. Now, we don’t have anyone injured, particularly the beginners, and that’s tough to do.”
Marc said that buy-in from parents has been crucial to the team’s success, particularly understanding the depth of the commitment the team carries.
“You can only coach the kids so much,” he said. “The parents have to buy in, and know we need [our athletes] at practice every day. The football coach wouldn’t let little Johnny take the day off to go to King’s Dominion. We are as much a varsity sport as those other sports. It’s getting through finally.”
Affolder has already seen the Hunters’ commitment.
“Practice might go three hours, but they’re there for every kid finishing his workout, every kid who needs instruction on drills,” he said.
It’s a routine the Hunters have honed over 10 years of running the Nova Athletic Club, which sports runners from nearly every Loudoun County school.
“We have enough quality programs that we’re rivaling Fairfax for the best runners in Northern Virginia,” Marc said. “You used to show up to meets and see Chantilly, West Springfield, Lake Braddock and just know they were going to win. Things are changing.”
And runners are starting to notice what Loudoun County has to offer. Some travel there to run on the dirt and gravel roads that see scant traffic on its rural routes.
“One of the great things we have out here is a chance to get off of the sidewalks,” Marc said. “It’s a good place to live, without a lot of distractions, and a great place to run.”
They won’t be racing on dirt roads if they make it to nationals, though. They know the Nike course in Portland is muddy, and they’ll take to the perennially-sloppy Glory Days course to prepare.
“I’ll ask the boys, ‘What can you give up to make this happen?'” Marc Hunter said. “Everyone can find something they can give up. We have to sacrifice some things to overcome some things. If we break even, the sacrifice will meet the obstacles.
“I think we can win.”
Runner Number Five, Where Are You
With three runners who have run 9:15 or faster for 3,200 meters and another who has run 4:17 for 1,600 meters, the missing piece to the Vikings’ scoring five will come from any number of contributors:
Junior Jacob Windle finished fourth for the Vikings at the state meet in 20th place, then finished 59th at the Nike Cross Southeast meet.
“My first year, I felt like everyone was blowing by me, but as a sophomore, things slowed down a little for me and I was able to take control of my race a little more,” he said. “I kind of lose some ground in the middle of races, so I want to work on that.”
Senior Chase Dawson began his career at Loudoun Valley by winning the underclassman JV race at Great Meadows, beating both Morris and Bogucki. He typically starts off each season strong, last year beating Jacob Hunter at Great Meadows and finishing 21st at Oatlands. “Once school starts I slow down,” he said, pointing to his heavy academic load, which is only heavier with the addition of a programming internship at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. He was fifth for Loudoun Valley at the state meet, in 29th, and 89th at the Nike Cross Southeast meet.
Junior Connor Wells transferred from Freedom High School in South Riding. He finished one place behind Jacob Hunter at the Oatlands Invitational, ahead of Dawson and Windle, then 12th at the 4A state meet, behind three Vikings. He spent the track season recovering from a stress fracture.
Sophomore Kevin Carlson was the second-best freshman in 4A last year, finishing 40th at the state meet despite having broken his wrist in gym class a few weeks prior. He held on for 128th at the Nike Cross Southeast meet.
The Vikings went through their season undefeated when they fielded full teams: the PTCX Invitational in Pennsylvania, the Oatlands Invitational over North Carolina’s Green Hope, and the Great American Cross Country Festival. They had seven runners finish under 16:00 at the Loudoun County Championships on the Woodgrove High School course, and won their third straight Virginia 4A championship by sweeping the top five spots — Affolder, Morris, Bogucki, Hunter and Wells, with Carlson just two spots back in eighth.
Then, while winning the Nike Cross Southeast meet in Cary, N.C., with Affolder and Morris taking second and fourth overall, Dawson, running unattached, finished just ahead of Wells, who was just three seconds ahead of Carlson. Sophomore Kellen Hastle has joined the mix as the seventh runner at Nike Cross Southeast. When the older guys take weekends off of racing, he’s led the team to a Dulles District Meet victory and nearly won the Third Battle Invitational team title.
They’ve taken pride in, on top of championship race titles, several junior varsity race victories at invitationals, including the Varsity B and JV Underclassman races at Oatlands.
In their first Nike Cross Nationals appearance, the Vikings will face off against 20 other teams, chief among them Great Oak from California.
The race starts at 1:05 p.m. Eastern and will be webcast.