In the anticipatory hours leading up to the Class 4 boys' race on Saturday, one comment continued to emerge verbally throughout members of the Great Meadow spectators.
"Who's going to come in second?"
While the boys' and girls' races were won by Loudoun Valley, there was competition among the girls' teams, especially from Kaitlynn Wolfe and Blacksburg, who harbored a realistic chance (and expectation) of winning the championship. But on the boys' side, the only drama stemmed from how many runners would the Vikings put in the front, and if their team score would be 17, or 16, or even a perfect 15.
As it turned out, the only team score of 15 came from the Western Albemarle boys, racing in the Class 3 meet hosted 200 miles due southwest in Salem. However, the Valley did gain the first four places (winner Carlos Shultz, Kellen Hasle, Jeremiah Mussmon, Taylor Ney). And the seventh and eighth place finishes of Kevin Carlson and Matthew Smith helped LV tally 17 points.
But three places behind Smith was Grafton's Zach Sturm. Sturm, who has helped to pace the Clippers all season, finished in 16:09, and led the Yorktown team to a runner-up finish, one which was a pleasant surprise, but not totally unexpected.
"We were excited, but lived up to our expectations," said Grafton coach Nick Valenti minutes after his team had collected their second-place hardware.
This led to the tougher question. How does a coach explain to his team that winning the state title isn't a realistic goal? Also, what happens when they do run their best and finish second?
"When it came time to accept the trophy, I told my guys to go up there and accept it humbly," said Valenti. We accept that Loudoun Valley (defending two-time national champion) is a great team. But, if we idolize another team, it will hold us back from what we need to do."
Sturm's teammates came prepared. Alex Murphy (13th) and Ben Madrigal (15th) also earned All-State honors, while Dylan Raney came in 33rd and John Linehan 34th. After eliminating the individual runners, Raney and Linehan came up in the team standings as 26th and 27th, helping the Clippers to their 86-point output.
Linehan's performance was especially inspiring. Anguished by a knee injury last week, the junior took five days off before jogging the day before the meet.
The coach did offer an incentive. "If we got second, or averaged 16 minutes per man, Coach agreed to take us to Nike South," said Linehan. "We came in averaging 16:01." Given the cold weather and the second mile hills at the back of the course, finishing second was going to be the only realistic option.
Mission accomplished. "I'm proud of our team." said Sturm. "We have been working for 22 weeks and everybody had a reason for us to do well - our parents, our team, everybody."
Champe Girls Also Earn Runner-up in First Year of Class 6
A bigger runner-up surprise occurred in the girls Class 6 race as John Champe, a program based in tiny Aldie, one which has bumped from Class 4 to Class 6 in three years, took the second team spot behind champion Lake Braddock.
Heading into Saturday, the Knights have been best known as the team featuring Bethany Graham, who won the individual title by 34 seconds, with her time of 17:42 outpacing upstart sophomore Aniya Mosley of Ocean Lakes.
Yet the team championship was expected to a three-way battle among another Knights team, this one from Kellam, who were hoping to fend off their Virginia Beach rival from Ocean Lakes and the perennial powerhouse contingent from Lake Braddock.
In the end, it was the Braddock Bruins, behind the 1-2 combination of Sophie Willis (11th) and Alexandra Hague (15th) who bolstered the team to yet another state win, with 89 points.
But it was the Lady Knights, eight points behind, who made a surprise appearance on the podium.
Coached by John Stegmeier, Champe did not even compete at states last year, finishing sixth in the Potomac District meet. This year, they held off a much tighter knit of Colgan runners to win the Region 6B crown and earn the trip to The Plains.
Buoyed by Graham's win, the Knights followed with Marianne Jayaraj (14th), freshman Taylor Gibson (19th), Olivia Lecker (36th), and another freshman, Lillia Graham (69th). With the influx of individual runners placing high, the younger Graham's placing was good for 53 points, giving Champe a total of 97.