Cross country runners aren’t imposing figures, and Peter Morris knows that. The Loudoun Valley guys couldn’t walk up to the rest of the Nike Cross Nationals field, stare everybody down and expect a response, but Morris knew if they could just be themselves on Portland, Ore.’s Glendoveer Golf Course, everyone would have a good reason to be scared of them. Like an alligator’s grin, a Viking’s laugh was a sign of danger to come.
“We just showed up and were united and knew if we ran our best, we’d win,” he said. “The way we’ve bonded has been one of the reasons we’ve run well, and we’ve bonded because we have fun together.”
It wasn’t quite that easy, but it was that straightforward. Hard work, smart training, bonding and some insight from Morris’ experience racing here last year all went into what turned out to be the most dominant boys’ team victory in NXN’s 14-year history as the high school team cross country championship.
“They were cracking jokes on the starting line,” said Coach Marc Hunter. “They were doing that before the state meet, and they had their best race of the season there. It’s their game face.”
Senior Colton Bogucki noticed a contrast while in Portland.
“A lot of other teams seemed nervous and tired,” he said. “They weren’t socializing as much. We weren’t going to suddenly become robots who were just there to run.”
Although the Vikings’ approach to the race didn’t change at NXN, the field did. After dominating their schedule, including putting six runners in the top 50 at the Nike Southeast region meet, they were about to face a much deeper field of runners. Again, their response called for staying loose.
“We told the guys, if it looks like you’re in 70th place, don’t worry, it’s not bad,” said Coach Joan Hunter. “It’s obviously weird for kids who are used to only having a few people with them during a race to feel surrounded, but most of the guys ended up in better positions throughout the race than we projected.”
The start helped. When Morris finished the 2016 in 55th place, he said he felt he had been a little naive about how the race and course would play out. Following the girls’ race last year, the grass, especially the turns, was torn up and footing was a mess. This year, the boys would have the course first, so it would be in a little better condition, but rain throughout the week and on race day was enough to concern junior Sam Affolder when he did his strides before the race. The Vikings’ box assignment, on the very left end, with a sharp left-hand turn a quarter mile in, meant they’d have to get into position early.
So they took a hint from another Fall sport, and lined up Affolder and junior Jacob Hunter, two of their tallest guys, on the right side of their box to serve as a pair of linemen.
“There’s a lot of pushing and elbowing in that first stretch, but the taller guys led the way for us,” Morris said. “We got to the middle of the field and were in a good position for that turn.”
Had they not, it would have been at least another 1200 meters until they had a chance to pass many people and make up ground in the team race.
Morris stayed on Affolder’s tail for about two miles on the muddy course, before pulling away alone toward the end to finish 12th in 15:29. A two-tiered hill carried runners up to the final stretch, and the Vikings’ strategy directed them to hold their position on the climb and then sprint like crazy the last 150 meters.
Before he hit that hill, Affolder was slowing slightly with growing stomach pains.
“I hit a lot of times toward the end where I just wanted to stop, but I know I just had to keep pushing,” he said. “A little bit of pain was worth it.”
He followed a few seconds later to finish 23rd in 15:37.
“If the race had been a little longer, I don’t know if I would have made it,” Affolder said. “But you can always give a little more.”
As the race went on, the turns in particular became dicey, and runners had to choose to run the tangents or seek out better footing by running a little farther.
“A lot of steps you were taking, you’d slip back,” Bogucki said. “Once we got used to it, it was okay, but it would have been easy to get frustrated.”
That’s something Marc Hunter wanted to hammer into the kids throughout the season. Aside from an early season race in Pennsylvania, the Vikings’ races were relatively dry, but when a wet day offered a chance to get messy, they embraced it. A dry October complicated that effort, but the message was clear.
“I told the guys, ‘you are going to fall and slip today, so be ready for it,'” Hunter said. “I wanted them to think about what would happen when they’d fall, and be drilled in that they shouldn’t get up and start sprinting. It was going to be the team that didn’t get frustrated that would handle the mess the best.”
While Affolder and Morris led the way, Bogucki and Jacob Hunter were having the best races of their careers, both ahead of the coaches’ projections for where in the pack they should be and feeling great.
“I’ve never had a race feel like it went by so fast,” Bogucki said. “Suddenly, I was at two miles and I felt like I had so much left.”
He caught himself when he nearly went down at 2.5 miles, but recovered to catch the few runners who had passed him. He finished 37th in 15:48.
A few seconds later, Hunter came crashing onto the finish line in 43rd place, running 15:52, a time that thrilled him, given the footing.
“On that last stretch, I was leaning more and more, and right at the end I leaned too far and ate it,” he said. “I wanted to be able to get up on my own, not have one of the officials have to pull me up.”
Hunter struggled with stomach issues that concerned his parents in the days leading up to the team’s departure, but by the time they settled into their hotel rooms late Wednesday night and made dinner with groceries from Target, he was back to normal and able to stretch his legs out in a short workout the next morning.
Behind Hunter, the question mark remained for the Vikings as to their fifth finisher. But deep in the pack, where the coaches had trouble counting exactly where the runners were, they turned out to have three exclamation points. Junior Connor Wells, senior Chase Dawson and sophomore Kevin Carlson traded off the lead as they worked their way through the course.
Wells and Dawson were comeback stories of sorts and far from locks to make the trip.
Wells suffered a stress fracture in March and missed out on not just a track season at Freedom High School, but also cross country base building. His family moved to Purcellville from South Riding and he joined the Vikings, but had to ease in.
“There were some rough times when I wondered if I’d get back to being fit,” he said. “I had to be patient, and that’s not easy when you want to come back and contribute to the team. (His teammates) were supportive, though.”
By the state meet, he was fit enough to complete the Vikings’ sweep, finishing fifth.
Dawson won his first race as a Loudoun Valley freshman, ahead of Bogucki and Morris, but his strong starts eventually gave way to sleepless nights when his academic workload weighed on him. But for a few weeks, he managed to schedule some of his extracurricular neuroscience research to give him a little extra time to sleep sleep during the postseason, and it paid off. When he edged Wells to be the fifth finisher from Loudoun Valley at the Nike Southeast regional, running unattached, he had made the case for why he should be on the nationals team for his last cross country race.
Wells ended up in 95th in 16:23, with Dawson five seconds back in 108th. Carlson slid in two seconds later in 113th.
“There’s always something you wish you could do better, but I think I did a good job displacing other runners,” Carlson said. “At one point I caught up with Chase and told him I wanted to beat me. That we didn’t need much more motivation but that got us going even harder.”
Individual qualifier Yared Mekonnen, a senior from Thomas Edison, finished 76th in 16:13.
The Vikings pillaged
Mark and Joan Hunter started coaching at Loudoun Valley in 2014 and have grown the team to more than 120 runners. In that time, the team has sent eldest son Drew Hunter and current George Mason runner Ciara Donohue to the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships (Drew won in 2015), won three 4A boys state titles and individual titles by Drew Hunter, Morris and Affolder, along with a come-from-behind 4A girls title by senior Natalie Morris, Peter’s twin who suggested they try cross country.
They took a shot at NXN last year, but fell 21 points short of an automatic team trip. But they made short work of the learning curve and 53 weeks after their 2016 disappointment, Loudoun Valley scored 89 points to win NXN, edging New Jersey’s Christian Brothers Academy’s 91-point total from 2011 for lowest boys’ team score. On top of that, their 70-point victory over Fayetteville-Manlius, which is near Syracuse, broke California’s Great Oak’s 49-point boys’ margin record from 2015.
It was enough that if Affolder hadn’t finished, or hadn’t moved to Purcelleville when his father was assigned to the Pentagon, the Vikings still would have won.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would turn out that way,” Marc Hunter said. “I thought if we won it, it was going to be a barn burner, really close.”
Instead they put four runners ahead of Manlius’ first.
“Teams rarely run their best race of the year at nationals, but I think we were close,” Hunter said. “There are all kinds of reasons: You’re on the other side of the country, you’re on a different schedule, you’re eating different, maybe you’re not sleeping as well.”
Instead, the Vikings were as consistent as they had been all year. Though runners dealt with aches throughout the season, many of their pledges to sacrifice something for the team focused on their recovery.
“I’d roll things out for a half hour before I go to bed,” Bogucki said. “I never really feel beaten up from any workouts.”
Affolder and Jacob Hunter gave up cookies, including the tempting trays of them at pre-race banquets. Wells and Dawson ate a lot of salads for lunch, and Carlson cut out late-night video games. For some the habits may stick.
“After a few weeks, I don’t know if I can go back,” Affolder said. “I want to keep running fast on the track, so I shouldn’t stop now.”
Before they take any time off, the Vikings will compete in an indoor track race to capitalize on their cross country peak and score a few state championship qualifying times. Then a short break.
But Marc Hunter is not planning to let his runners drift into post-season letdown after a year of work, even after experiencing the thrill of getting a police escort from the airport after their trip home from Portland landed.
“In our program you have to transition,” Hunter said. “Now we have a chance to go after some relay records and let guys chase PRs. After running for place in cross country, it will be a chance to run for times. There are new challenges ahead.”
The only major casualty of the season was junior Jacob Windle, who was nagged by an illness that has yet to be diagnosed. He, along with junior Kellen Hastle, who ran at Nike Cross Southeast, will return next year as the team sets new goals. For the first time in several years, Affolder won’t be moving to a new school, thanks his father’s two-year posting.
Morris and Bogucki, along with nationals competitor Mekonnen, will be running together at the University of Virginia next year, along with Rohann Asfaw, a 2017 Richard Montgomery graduate who made the Nike meet last year. Dawson is considering trying to walk onto a college team.
Whichever form their running takes in the future, their attitude will take them much of the way. How they handled the pressure approaching their biggest test of the year drove that home to Joan Hunter.
“They were the same group of goofballs they are at home. They make some of the dumbest jokes, but they stayed focused,” she said. “You can have a good time and still be focused. You don’t have to look like you’re going to a funeral just because you’re at a meet and you want to run well.”