For the past decade, the Lake Braddock girls' cross-country team has been the epitome of dominance. They took to the Great Meadow course on Saturday looking for a "one for the thumb" win - a fifth state title to finish the decade.
It wouldn't be easy. Just ask their coach.
Only one runner had ever scored as an individual on the track at a state meet," said Mike Mangan, speaking of Emilia Doran, his team's third runner on Saturday. "Another one spent most of the season trying to get her iron (level) back to normal, he added, thinking of Sophie Willis, who led the team of seven on Saturday.
Experience, or lack thereof, would also play a factor.
"Two spent the season learning to become cross-country runners," added Mangan, with his mind on Sophia Rosson and Caroline Fleenor, a pair of juniors who had made their mark on the track, but not in the fields or woods.
The season started well enough, with a second-place finish at the Monroe Parker Invitational as Doran placed fourth in 18:42. Yet, the Bruins lost to West Springfield by 10, and were not far ahead of third-place Robinson.
"Starting at camp, this team had a goal of being state champs. The coaching staff (which includes Jason Switzer, Nils Lindenblad, and Zach Hawkins) felt we could do it, but the girls were a bit unsure. As the season got going, the pieces started to fall into place"
The first piece fell two weeks later at the prestigious Adidas XC Challenge in Cary, NC. There, the Bruins placed third (of 29) teams, as Doran led the way with a 20th place finish.
In the first weekend of October, the Bruins diverted, traveling north to New Jersey to run at the famous Holmdel Park course. There, at the New Balance Shore Coaches Invitational, Lake Braddock placed third behind two Jersey powerhouses - Ridgewood and North Hunterdon.
"(That) was a huge step," said Mangan. "We picked the tough course because it is like Great Meadow. It gave us the confidence that we could beat West Springfield."
And three weeks later, they did top the Spartans 47-62 at the Patriot District meet as Doran, Alexandra Hague, and Rossen placed 5-6-7 to overcome West Springfield's Katie Orchard and Emily Herrema, who were second and third. Fleenor, the Bruins' fourth runner, placed 11th, ahead of West Springfield's third harrier, to seal the deal.
But a dose of reality struck the next week at the Occoquan Region meet when Orchard and Herrema went 3-4 and Rachel Mayberry (9th) got ahead of Hague and Fleenor, helping the Spartans nip LB 53-55 to take the title.
"Regionals was a key," said Mangan. "Losing because we weren't following our core values."
If the values were forgotten, being part of a legendary Bruin program would quickly force their collective memory to be jarred into place.
"Our alumni, as usual, are ever present. They sent a great hype video to our team. Showed how much it meant to them."
The inspiration worked. Added Mangan, "Everyone did their job. They ran for each other as much as themselves."
Kayla Nocerito played a clutch role last Saturday, placing fourth for Lake Braddock (39th - 20:01, but 28th in the team score). And the value of the sixth and seventh runners came to light as Rossen and Amelia Bradecamp finished ahead of Champe's fifth runner.
The core of the Bruins went deeper, as Mangan credited two seniors, Lexie Scarber and Brianna Krug, who served as alternates on Saturday. "They played large roles."
The Bruins scored 89 points to hold off state champion Bethany Graham and the Champe Knights by eight points. West Springfield ended up fourth with 124.
"It was a long and winding road," said the Bruin coach, who is reloaded for next year, with Doran being the only upcoming graduate of the top-seven.
It should make for a good start for rings on the other hand as the 2020's approach, now that the thumb is taken.