Top-Down Approach and How Loudoun Valley Changed The Tide

As Loudoun Valley ran away with both state Class 4 titles at the VHSL cross-country championships four weeks ago, it becomes harder to the average distance running follower to remember just how far the program has come in such a short time.

Last summer, at the Virginia Track Coaches Association meeting, held inside the Freeman Center at Christopher Newport University, co-coaches Marc and Joan Hunter presented to about 40 coaches from around the state, explaining how they turned around a stagnant program, and in four short years, turned it into a prep distance juggernaut, replete with one national championship, earned by the boys at last year's Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, OR. Not only did the Viking boys win, they scored a mere 89 points in the process, and topped national powerhouse Manlius (NY) by 70 points.

Entitled "From Ultimate Frisbee to National Champs: How A Small Rural School Overcame a Broken Culture," the presentation provided a unique look into the Loudoun Valley program, but not a rare one. Like many successful coaches, the Hunters are accessible, but not like all coaches, they are happy to share how their program works. In fact, one can find Loudoun Valley distance workouts online as the Hunters are one of 15 coaching entities who contribute to the website.

While the Hunters were well known in Northern Virginia coaching circles five years ago, it had nothing to do with their work at Loudoun Valley. In fact, they re-entered the arena in 2012 after a decade-plus absence (to raise their nine children), but had established themselves with stops at Madison and South Lakes where they helped to jumpstart the prep career of a young ninth-grader named Alan Webb.

And while having the likes of a Webb, or later, their own son Drew, on their coaching resume, helped to draw young runners to the Viking program, the challenge was more about changing the culture surrounding the Valley team, which had enjoyed little success prior to 2012. In fact, the girls' fourth-place state finish in 2001 was the only notable event in a 35-year period, beginning in 1970.

As the Hunters describe it, Drew had success in 2012-13, at which point, the couple joined forces as assistant coaches. Joan wrote the workouts, while Marc helped to "pick up the pieces." A medical problem forced the head coach to step away early in the 2013 cross-country season, and suddenly, the couple found themselves in charge of the program.

Thrust to the head position, the Hunters drew on their experiences and decided that an evaluation of the team culture was needed. What they discovered was a congenial environment among the team members, but one that was lacking in setting standards, or "raising the bar." The competitive focus was lacking. Practices were missed without explanation or worry, and summer training was not an expectation. Injuries were many, and as the Hunters state, that "is" a culture problem. From Day 1 at the helm, the Hunters focused on changing the scenery and building an accountable team.

It didn't take long to drive their point home. In 2013, the boys won the conference championship, while the girls' team qualified for state.

The Vikings improved exponentially in 2014, with the emergence of Drew as a nationally recognized runner. He and teammate Ciara Donohue qualified for Foot Locker Nationals, and a year later, Drew won the individual National championship. Two years later, individual success had transformed into a team national title.

At Great Meadow, Loudoun Valley not only swept the Class 4 races, but tacked on a few milestones along the way. For the girls, winning their first state championship also broke the seven-year run enjoyed by Blacksburg, and the 44-48 margin of victory showed that Blacksburg was not in a hurry to see their streak end.

Ricky Fetterolf paced the girls with a winning time of 18:23, followed closely by Blacksburg's Kaitlynn Wolfe (18:36) and then Loudoun Valley teammate Elise Abbe (18:40). Although Ailene Edwards and Audrey Link of Blacksburg took sixth and seventh, the Vikings ruled the day as Ally Talley (11th), Caroline Bolen (16th), Abby Keane (25th) and Leah Snyder (26th) paced the team to victory. With the individual runners etched out, the Vikings scored a 1-3-9-13-18 team finish.

The boys, as expected, rolled. Sam Affolder (15:30) won by 27 seconds over teammate Jacob Hunter, while Kellen Hasle, Connor Wells and Carlos Shultz placed in the top-seven as the Vikings led with a team low 16 points.

For the Hunters, it may have been just another day at the office. But thanks to a change of culture in Purcellville, it only took a few years to make the right turn.

Or, as Joan Hunter put it metaphorically at CNU in July, "We knew the tide was changing when one of the kids came up after a run and said. You know? Today, I took the right turn when we got to the W&OD (Washington & Old Dominion) trail. For years, I always took the left (shortcut)."