Washington, DC
Bethany Graham leads Taryn Parks in the second mile of the 2019 Oatlands Invitational. Photo: Charlie Ban

Bethany Graham wasn’t sure what to make of Taryn Parks. The senior from Greencastle-Atrim in Pennsylvania has been a mainstay at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships since her freshman year and had run 4:37 for 1600 meters over Memorial Day weekend. Graham ultimately chose not to change her plans for the Oatlands Invitational.

“I knew she raced pretty similar to me, that she liked to get out,” Graham said. “I decided to just run normally and see what happened. I didn’t want to change too much because she was in the race.”

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Ellie Desmond finishes second in the 5A race at the 2018 Virginia state cross country meet. Photo: Bruce Buckley

Successful partnerships between coaches and runners all involve some give and take. Regardless of how established a coach is, two-way communication is crucial to keeping runners healthy and improving. For a new coach whose native sport is soccer, like Lauren Brewer at Broad Run, having a runner who knows the ropes helps a lot.

Senior Ellie Desmond has been doing her fair share of teaching.

“When last year started winding down, she saw how many seniors we were losing and knew she had to step up,” Brewer said. “As soon as the track season ended, she asked if she could take on more responsibility and help guide the team.”

Brewer had been an assistant cross country coach the previous two years, but was still new to the structure of distance running training programs. Fortunately Desmond was a voracious student and willing to offer her experience.

“We got the coaches and captains together and came up with a program together — the long runs, tempo runs, track work, why it’s important to schedule things a certain way,” Brewer said. “She’s absolutely put her footprint on the way we run the team. She’s setting the standard, and she knows how to communicate to the other runners how I want to run this team.”

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Charles Colgan junior Bryce Lentz. Photo: Ed Lull

Bryce Lentz was frustrated with his dead legs. After he dropped a place to finish third at last week’s Pole Green Invitational, he aired his bodily grievances to his coach Dave Davis.

“I really don’t care, it’s September,” Davis recalled saying to Lentz, who is starting his junior year at Colgan High School. “The leaves are still green and you’re running 65 miles a week. Nothing matters.”

Lentz is still a little green himself. Even though he has been running since seventh grade, the last year, since moving to Virginia and winning the JV race at Great Meadow in his 2018 debut, has been steadily finishing toward the front of races. He won the Cardinal District last year, plus the 1600 and 3200 meters during the track season.

After finishing fifth in Virginia’s 6A cross country state championship, and because he’s 6’4″, he is losing the element of surprise.

“He won’t be able to sneak up on people anymore,” Davis said. “It was nice to hide, but we can’t hide anymore.”

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John Champe senior Bethany Graham. Photo: Ed Lull

Bethany Graham has plenty of reasons to fuel her running with frustration.

Despite brilliant starts to the past two cross country seasons, she hasn’t made the state meet since her freshman year. Stress fractures in 2017 and a sprained ankle in 2018 have kept her out of postseason racing.

Yet, she falls back on positive thinking. Back to something she learned through Girls on the Run.

“You just take the negative plug out,” she said. “It sounds silly but it still works for me today. Mentality is a big part of racing. If you’re not mentally confident, you’re not going to do well. You won’t have the confidence to compete with the best.

“I had to work on that for a while, but now it’s one of my strongest points.”

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West Springfield senior Sean Stuck. Photo: Ed Lull

Race car driver and raconteur Reece Bobby said it best, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.”

Sean Stuck knows that. At last spring’s Virginia 6A track championships, he brought up the rear in the 1600 meters, finishing just 16 seconds out of first place. Fortunately, he won the 3200 meters.

Sometimes races go well and sometimes they don’t, and for Stuck, it’s much more more of the former, lately. Since he hit is growth spurt after his freshman year and dropped baseball, he has found a home on West Springfield’s top seven, and he’s an integral part of the Spartans’ state title hopes this fall.

“Sean’s main strength is that he doesn’t fear anybody or anything,” said West Springfield coach Chris Pellegrini. “That governor in everyone’s brain that tells people they maybe shouldn’t do something, that gives them doubt? He just doesn’t have that; his confidence exists in that moment of truth during races.”

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Albert Velikonja and Colin McCauley lead Sam Pritchard and Chris Weeks in mile two of the Monroe Parker Invitational. Photo: Charlie Ban

Now that a lot of the Fairfax County running gang was back together at the Monroe Parker Invitational, Albert Velikonja decided to see who had done their homework over the summer. 

A mile and a half in to Burke Lake’s 2.98-mile course, he surged, and looked around to see how it all shook out. 

“I wasn’t trying to run away with it, I just wanted to see if anyone would come with me,” he said. 

Herndon senior Colin McAuley and West Springfield seniors Chris Weeks and Sam Pritchard all joined him in the front.

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Albert Velikonja. Photo: Ed Lull

To hear Tom Brumlik tell it, Albert Velikonja approaches an August time trial with the same intensity as he does a state championship final.

“It was pretty evident from the first lap last year that he was going to be pretty good,” Brumlik said of the now-senior, who was trying cross country after a moderately successful sophomore track season.

This was before he even took the field for a serious race, at the DCXC Invitational, where he finished sixth in the junior race.

“He just loves to race, and that’s hard to coach,” Brumlik said. “He has a natural competitiveness that’s easy to build around.

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Jenny Schilling closes in on a fifth place finish in the 2018 Virginia 4A meet. Photo: Bruce Buckley

 

As a freshman, Jenny Schilling’s Heritage Pride jersey never fit quite right. 

The subtext wasn’t lost on Nancy Merriman. 

“She didn’t know exactly what her talent level was,” Merriman said. “She was trying to figure herself out in the sport, and that took a little while.”

Schilling had been a dancer until sixth grade, when she followed her brother onto the NOVA Athletic Club and she retrained her legs to run.

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Sam Pritchard. Photo: Ed Lull

Like many trios, each member brings something special to the group. Among West Springfield’s Three Terrors, now seniors, Sean Stuck won the state outdoor 3200 meter championship in 6A and Chris Weeks was second in the 1600 meters. But on the cross country course, Sam Pritchard leads the Spartans. He finished third in the Virginia 6A meet last fall, and is the top returning runner this season.

“Sam is the most natural cross country runner (among the three seniors), but he’s the least flashy,” said coach Chris Pellegrini. “He shows the most natural instincts and that’s shown in his races. He has the best mid-race understanding of where he has to put himself to do what he wants to do.”

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Piper Dean. Photo: Ed Lull

Ignorance was bliss for Piper Dean in her first cross country race.

She took the line at the DCXC Invitational wearing trainers. On an extremely muddy course, that played a part in helping her finish second in the sophomore race, when other competitors’ spikes were working too well to dig into the much.

“I didn’t even know people wore spikes,” she said.

She figured that out over the course of a season that culminated with a fourth place finish in the Virginia 6A state meet, in what she called a bad race. Sure enough, it was the only time in five tries she didn’t finish in top two.

She was new to the Yorktown cross country team, moonlighting in the sport after years playing soccer. She still considers herself a soccer player, spending four days at week practicing for the Yorktown and Braddock Road teams, plus playing both Saturdays and Sundays. She made it to about one cross country practice per week.

“I’ll give her soccer coaches a lot of credit, she came to us in great shape,” said Tom Brumlik. “She surprised us in every meet.”

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