Nobody on the Walter Johnson girls’ team has ever known a world in which they haven’t been defending state champions. That will continue for another year, after the Wildcats won their record fifth straight 4A title.
Lake Braddock girls won their third straight 6A title, once again beating Oakton, winner of the two state meets before the Bruins’ streak started.
After three years of winning team scores in the 40s, the Bruins nearly doubled that, scoring 86 to Oakton’s 92.
They did it with a tight pack of their fourth through seventh runners, who finished 31st, 32nd, 33rd, 35th and 38th.
Senior Sarah Daniels led the way in sixth (19:00) and Brielle Perry in 14th in 19:28. Rebecca Doran (20:02), Zoe Rafter (20:03), Samantha Schwers (20:07), Madeline McAvoy (20:09) and Madeleine Fleenor (20:11), respectively, also raced. Daniels, Schwers and McAvoy returned from last year’s team.
On the eve of the the most dominant team race in Virginia history, Sam Affolder was a little disappointed.
“We had a team meeting, and I was expecting an inspirational speech about how we were going to make history and we’d come out fired up,” he said. “We talked about what we were going to wear the next day. Nothing about trying to sweep or go after the state record. I’d never had a pre-race meeting like that before.”
It looked like Gavin McElhennon was making a mistake. As he powered his way around the perimeter of the Kenilworth Park fields, he let Luke Tewalt hang behind him. He blocked the wind, set the pace and put himself out there, vulnerable for Tewalt to attack and take over the lead in the D.C. state cross country championships.
But his confidence in his strength gave him a boost and let him know it was alright, and the move he made with a mile to go gave him the margin he needed to win. He wound up running away from Tewalt and finishing in 16:34, 21 seconds faster than Tewalt on a course measured by several team representatives to have been between 75 and 200 feet longer than 5k. A permit conflict with the Kenilworth Park track prevented the use of the same course used in last year’s state meet and four years of the DCXC Invitational.
Two Northern Virginia teams with hopes for making the state’s 6A meet under new challenges sharpened up for the post-season at the Third Battle Invitational, with J.E.B. Stuart’s boys and West Springfield’s girls getting the wins.
West Springfield put four runners in the top 16 to edge 5A’s Tuscarora, who themselves had two ahead of the Spartans, including overall winner Emma Wolcott (17:56). and Ava Hassebrock (18:34) in eighth.
The trip from Southwest Virginia did not tire out Abingdon senior Karl Theissen (15:15), the defending 3A champion, who won a home stretch kick over Stafford’s Philip Lambert (15:22). Poolesville’s Ryan Lockett (15:37), who recently committed to Virginia, edged Edison’s Yared Mekonnen (15:39) to be the first D.C.-area finisher.
It’s a relatively flat course, with a mile-long loop through a narrow forest trial less than a quarter mile into the race. That forces runners to position themselves quickly, and Lockett was more aggressive than usual, tucking behind a trio of Tuscarora guys and two Stuart runners.
Maryland runners made themselves at home at Virginia’s Bull Run Regional Park, winning the individual and team titles at the Glory Days Invitational. Walter Johnson senior Abbey Green led the girls’ race from the start, and cleared the way for the Wildcats to claim the team title.
On the boys’ side, Poolesville’s Ryan Lockett overpowered Severna Park’s Garrison Clark in the last half mile, despite a rough start and a last-mile misstep.
A dry September left the usually-muddy course as dry as it has been since 2012, but the heat and direct sunlight and mid-afternoon race times slowed down what a faster course sped up. Lockett’s 16:03 has him a second ahead of Alec Shrank and Rohann Asfaw‘s photo finish in 2016. The meet was not as deep, individually, with many D.C.-area teams heading to the Great American Cross Country Festival in North Carolina.
Basking in his 15:11 that led the day’s times at the DCXC Invitational, Grafton senior Price Owens summed up the day’s races without saying a word.
He threw back his head and guzzled from a gallon jug of water.
Owens was one of the fortunate ones – the senior boys’ race, the last of eight varsity races divided by high school class, went off a little after 6 p.m., when the sun was setting and the temperature was waning from the 89-degree high. His female counterpart, Page Lester, sprawled across the finish line a half hour earlier, after hanging around the course all day. An hour before that, Nandini Satsangi stopped short of the finish line, woozy from the heat, and needed the crowd to tell her she wasn’t done yet. She finished the race sprawled on the track and recovering in the medical tent.
“I could hear people, but I didn’t know what they were saying,” she said of the latter parts of the race. “I was just trying to keep going.”
Rolling Hills of Cement
Cross country is a rough sport. Athletes brave all kinds of weather and all kinds of terrain; they run on hills, rocky trails, mud and sometimes even through creeks. Sometimes that iconic and pastoral racing environment isn’t available every day, but even in a “concrete jungle” with some of the worst traffic in the nation, many D.C. runners still log those miles.
The Oatlands Invitational in Leesburg served as a showcase for the nearby Loudoun Valley, but not just the school’s nationally-top-ranked boys’ varsity team. Junior Sam Affolder‘s 15:43 win for 5k led the way for five team titles and three runner-up finishes for various Viking teams.
Affolder, seniors Peter Morris (third, 16:01) and Colton Bogucki (ninth, 16:19), and juniors Jacob Hunter (13th, 16:29) and Jacob Windle (20th, 16:52) scored 46 team points and had all finished before second place Cary, N.C.,’s Green Hope had two runners in. The Falcons, who also came up for the 2014 DCXC Invitational, scored 117 points and Delaware’s Salesianum School was third with 194 points.
In the varsity B races, the all-age junior varsity division, the Viking boys missed only second place out of the top six, and the girls had five in the top 18.
“As a coach, at this point in the season, that’s what you want to see,” coach Marc Hunter said of the down-slate results for the Vikings. “Those guys on the varsity B team, they could probably qualify for states in 4A. Sometimes you can lose heart if you’re the 17th guy on the team, but nobody’s hanging their heads. They’re really competing in each race.”
Affolder and Morris both expected Stafford’s Philip Lambert to take the first mile hard, and while Morris remained around 30th place into the second mile, Affolder and Green Hope’s Peyton Barish gained on Lambert.
“I was going to chase him so he didn’t get too far away and let the other guys know he wasn’t out of reach,” Affolder said. “We were out here on Wednesday and I saw how much deceiving uphill there was in the second mile, so I was ready for that. (Barish) and I communicated during the race that we should start moving up on Philip.”
Affolder was on his own at the two-mile mark, and at the top of a long hill, he surged around a blind spot. Barish, Lambert and Foot Locker finalist Price Owens of Grafton were in pursuit.
“I looked and saw them suffering on “The Wall,” so I put the burners on so once they hit the corner and see how far ahead I am, they’ll be mentally broken,” he said,
Meanwhile, Morris focused on the ankle-deep creek crossing at the bottom of a hill about 1.5 miles into the race, and trusted his experience with the Oatlands course to propel him through the water, confident that he’d find the best footing.
“A lot of people get to the bottom of the hill and get discouraged because they have to start going back up,” he said. “That’s when I started to move up,” and he was fifth at the end of the second mile.
Morris caught Lambert at the line for third place in 16:01. Owens had finished second just ahead in 15:59.
“I don’t think he knew I was back there,” Morris said of Lambert.
On the girls’ side, Morris’ twin sister Natalie was fourth (19:14) to lead the Loudoun Valley girls to their third straight invitational win, following Great Meadow in August and Pennsylvania’s PTXC the week prior. While she has been a steady contributor for the Vikings for the past few years, she’s been joined near the top of races by freshman Ricky Fetterolf, who finished ninth in 19:43. Also for the Vikings, Alice Roberts finished 27th in 20:46, Elise Abbe was 32nd in 20:51 and Noelle Saine was 42nd in 21:03.
Hunter said Fetterolf has improved steadily from her Nova Athletic Club days once she started running six days a week.
“It’s amazing how kids blossom when they have these long, extended training periods,” Hunter said. “We just have to keep challenging her, and she’ll keep trying to run with Natalie.”
Tuscarora senior Emma Wolcott, second last week to Annandale freshman Julia Ghiselli at the Monroe Parker Invitational, gapped Ghiselli on the way down the hill in the third mile and held on for a 18:52-18:59 win.
“I didn’t really have a plan, but we had some of the top girls in the state coming here so I wanted to see how they would run,” Wolcott said. “I don’t usually get out fast, but that’s okay because this is a tough course.”
Coach Troy Harry told her the second half of the race should belong to Wolcott, which motivated her.
“I wasn’t expecting to win, but it shows me that I’m pretty tough.”
On a hot day, with little shade on most of the course by the time varsity races started at 10, more than a few runners also challenged themselves and were pleased to see how they ended up.
Chantilly’s girls are riding the momentum from their state championship qualification last year, which has been driving their season so far.
“It woke them up a little,” said coach Matt Gilchrist. “They saw what they could do and they want more of it, especially since we hadn’t made it for a while.”
He said their goals for the day were to finish in the top 10.
“It was a little bit of a surprise, but it’s a good one,” Gilchrist said. “They can look at those results and see that what they are doing is paying off.”
Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior Adam Nakasaka edged Richard Montgomery’s Mark Unger for sixth place in 16:15, making him the first Maryland finisher.
“This year, I was racing guys like Sam Affolder, Price Owens and Peter Morris, guys who have made nationals,” he said. “Last year I just felt like I was running in the same race. I feel like I’m stepping up.”
Julia Ghiselli didn’t know much about Heather Holt before the Monroe Parker Invitational, except that she was fast.
A lot of people are getting to know Ghiselli now, and she’s pretty fast herself. And Ghiselli was pleased to learn that Holt was also “very nice.”
The Annandale freshman ran 17:29 on Burke Lake’s 2.98 mile course to win, reaching the threshold to make the all-time list for the course, where will soon be 37th.
Lake Braddock won both varsity races, with the women edging Tuscarora and Robinson and the men ahead of James Madison and W.T. Woodson. Junior Edward Cerne led the Bruins with the overall win, with Tyler Lawson following in third.
Ghiselli’s grade level belies a nuanced appreciation for the sport, which she picked up as a third grader in her private school’s once-weekly cross country practice, then fortified with a few years in the Vienna Youth Incorporated track program. She has generally been interested in running history, focusing an eighth grade project on Katherine Switzer, and she recently started reading The First Ladies of Running.
“It’s so fun to make a connection to where you are, with nature and connect with the people you’re running with,” she said about running. “I learned the different techniques for training and racing.”
Most importantly: “With training, you get out what you put into it. but you have to balance being serious about training with having fun. In racing, you should always try your best and don’t have any regrets.”
She knew she would regret not saving something for the last .98 miles, so after sticking to Holt through the first two miles “like Velcro,” as an Annandale fan yelled near the two-mile mark, she tested Holt on the shady, obstacle-laden last loop through the woods. By the time she hopped over the train tracks, she was clear of Holt and cruised to a 28-second victory. She had finished second two weeks before at her first high school race, the Great Meadow Invitational.
Holt, the Foot Locker South runner-up, had won the previous two Monroe Parker meets, and while she was disappointed to have finished second this year, she was happy that it happened early in the season, with plenty of time to refocus herself.
Tuscarora senior Emma Wolcott, who had broken up Holt’s two 5A individual state titles with one of her own during their sophomore year, nearly caught Holt in the last stretch, both of them recorded at 17:57.
“I wanted to come here, run fast and have fun,” she said.
Cerne was primarily an 800 meter runner, but tight postseason meets prompted coach Mike Mangan to double him in the 1600 meters. He responded well and found he had a little more endurance than he had realized. Still Mangan wanted him to keep his speed under control, which paid off two weeks prior when he won the PR Kickoff Invitational two mile with a strong last 1,000 meters.
He let Tuscarora senior Ben Nibbelink lead past the second mile mark, and when he was weakened from the rolling hills, made his move in the last 600 meters.
“If he was going to do the work on those hills, I was going to let him,” Cerne said.
Nibblelink, running his first healthy cross country season in two years, was part of a group of five for the first two miles.
“I was going to wait until the two-mile mark, which is what I did, but looking back I wish I had gone earlier,” Nibbelink said. “I had no idea (Cerne) was back there. I thought (James Madison’s Zach Holden) was somewhere behind me, but I didn’t realize where he was.”
He was a little gun shy on a fast first mile, after going through the start of the Great Meadow Invitational in 4:42 two weeks before. He finished fourth there.
Around the Beltway
While Monroe Parker concentrated a lot of Northern Virginia teams, other D.C.-area teams looked far and wide for early-season competition.
Walt Whitman earned wins on both sides at the Rebel Invitational in Hagerstown, Md. Einstein’s Simeon Mussie gapped Whitman’s Aaron Bratt to win, but Bratt had four more teammates in the top 18. Heather Delaplaine was the top local girl, but her second-place Damascus team couldn’t match Whitman’s top five in places 5-12.
Loudoun Valley’s boys dominated the PTXC 9 Invitational in Kutztown, Pa., sweeping the first four places with Sam Affholder, Colton Bogucki Jacob Hunter and Peter Morris all finishing in 15:55 or faster. Natalie Morris and Ricky Fetteroit led the Viking ladies to a win, too.
St. Andrews senior Luke Armbruster won the Bullis Invitational over Washington Latin’s Luke Tewalt. National Cathedral School senior Page Lester won by more than 2:30. Read more about the Bullis cross country course.
A 1-2 sweep by Mark Unger and Garrett Suhr helped the Richard Montgomery boys win the Track and Trail Invitational over T.S. Wootton. Jessica Trzeciak led Wootton to a reversal over Richard Montgomery in the girls’ race.