Apparently finishing second at the state meet at the end of an abbreviated freshman season didn’t give Sailor Eastman much confidence.
It wasn’t until she was battling Olympic Trials 800 meter runner Juliette Whittaker in the last mile of the Oatlands Invitational that she realized she belonged in the race.
“I kept thinking they were all going to catch me and outkick me,” Eastman said. “I just decided to fake it until I make it.”
Whittaker, a senior at Mount De Sales in Baltimore County, leaned for the win, with both timed at 17:58. But by putting herself in contention for the win, in addition to helping her Battlefield team to a second place finish behind Tuscarora, Eastman come away with a stronger position to start from in her next race.
“I knew I had endurance, so I just went as hard as I could,” she said. “I figured if I was going to race, I should do it well and give it all I had.”
While she’s coming back from a shorter offseason that most of the field, Whittaker tried her best to not fight the hilly course that had lurked in the back of her mind since her third place finish here as a sophomore.
“I just used my momentum and tried to use what the course gave me,” she said. “It was good to get this out of the way and start my cross country season, the rolling hills weren’t a joke.”
Mount De Sales had planned to open its season a week earlier at the Seahawk Invitational, but Tropical Storm Ida’s remnants damaged South River High School’s facilities too much to hold the race.
“I was surprised she came back,” Whittaker said of Eastman. “She was really tough at the end.”
McLean junior Thais Rolly finished third, surprising herself by running 18:07 for a 29-second improvement over her winning Virginia 6A time in April on the same course.
“I wasn’t expecting to PR that much in my first race,” she said. “I was nervous before the start, but after winning the state meet, I knew I could race these girls. I just tried to move up in the second and third miles and catch people.
“Even though I didn’t get closer to Juliette and Sailor, having them ahead of me gave me someone to focus on and keep racing.”
Richard Montgomery’s Grace Finnegan was the first runner from Montgomery or Prince George’s count schools to finish, in fifth place (18:36), while Georgetown Visitation’s Vivian Kelly (37th in 20:36) was the first D.C. school runner.
Meanwhile, Rolly’s McLean teammate Xavier Jemison has always felt he belonged in his races, almost to a fault. After years of running hard from the gun, the senior took a more patient approach, which paid off in a 16:01 win over Yorktown senior Owen McArdle (16:05).
“I realized that doesn’t work for me, so I’ve started drafting off people more,” he said. “And Owen and I have been switching off taking the pace in races for a while.”
The two hung back as Woodberry Forest’s Ferenc Kovacs lead the first 1.5 mile, with Graham Mussmon and Aidan Soto, from team champion Loudoun Valley, in tow.
“I didn’t want to let (Kovacs) get away too much, so I just hung with Xavier until I could take the lead of the chase pack for a while. We started really moving up in the woods.”
Jemison drew confidence from the progress they made eating into Kovacs’ lead as the second mile closed. But as the three started the long climb colloquially known as “the Jesus hill,” Walter Johnson’s Andrew Schell got in on the action, taking the group up the hill in single file.
“It’s been a while before I raced all of these guys,” Schell said. He finished 44th here as a sophomore before losing the Maryland cross country season to the COVID-19 pandemic during his junior year. “I knew everyone was going to go out fast, so I knew I had to match that, even if it was faster than I would have wanted.
Jemison and McArdle pulled away with a quarter mile before Jemison put in a surge that broke the race. Schell wound up third in 16:12.
“My legs were screaming, my teammate was yelling that I had to go to catch him, but I just didn’t have it,” McArdle said. “I’ve gotten better at the hills lately, and I regret not going harder up the hills to try to cut into Xavier’s kick.”
Sidwell Friends senior Micah Lachman was the first runner from a Washington, D.C. school to finish in 14th place, running 16:52.
At Burke Lake’s 2.98-mile course, other Virginia teams returned to the Monroe Parker Invitational, with W.T. Woodson taking the boys’ title in 49 points over West Springfield’s 90, and Justice senior Ryan Watson (15:09) winning the individual title over James Madison’s Robbie Jenkins (15:22). Herndon’s Gillian Bushee won in 17:37 over Langley’s Lila Water (18:31), with West Springfield’s 69 points leading Robinson’s 150.