Western Branch Breaks State 4x8 Record With Ebony Anchoring In 2:09
Dominant programs need two key ingredients: good athletes and great coaches. To get started though there has to be that first athlete who gets everyone else to buy in and is the catalyst for that program's dominance. Think of an athlete like Drew Hunter who not only helped lead Loudoun Valley to greatness but actually helped them run faster and stronger after he was there too.
One similar athlete who served as a catalyst and who ushered in a dynasty was Ebony White of Western Branch. She arrived at Western Branch as a junior with some experience and questions as to what she could become.
Flashback to 2013, this was Ebony's first year at Branch. She owned PR's of 2:15 in the 800 and 1:21 in the 500 coming into Branch. She basically only competed in the 400, 500, 800, and 1K. Her longest race being just one 1500m race and her shortest being just one 300m dash indoors. That was soon going to change.
"Ebony White aka Red was not too thrilled about the program...she was told by another coach it was a bad move since we had never produced any middle distance runners. I told her to trust me and be patient. I told Ebony to play her part and we would start building a group around her." - Former Western Branch Head Coach Claude 'Touk's Toukene
Coach Touks' mindset was cultivating more rounded athletes. His focus was not necessarily on specializing but more so being more fit and understanding kinetically the skills involved. By this time he had already created a dominant culture of hurdling. No matter what event was "your event", you were hurdling as well.
The strength behind this strategy was two fold. On the face of it you got better hurdlers, more mobility, and more explosiveness. All great things for runners no matter if you run the 55 or 5K. What its real specialty though was how it forced athletes to do something they were uncomfortable with and embrace it as a challenge. That mindset is what you want and need to be a dominant program.
Touks had mastered transforming everyone into a hurdler but had another goal on his mind and that was making his sprinters run the 800.
Prior to 2013 Western Branch had quite a few great 4x4 relay teams and 400/500 meter runners. They ranked 5th all-time in the 4x4 outdoors and 9th all-time indoors. Despite those stats they had zero teams ranked all-time in the 4x8 and only had a school record of 9:24.50 outdoors and 9:29 indoors.
That all changed though when Ebony White joined the Bruin ranks.
"She became a great student of the game, a role model and a leader for the team... she was the ultimate student-athlete."
After 2013 though Western Branch was a new team. They had already won state team titles but now it was their turn to be a dynasty. Touks will be the first one to tell you it was Ebony buying in that changed the program forever. Not only did she make the team faster but she made the team more versatile and so-far, unbeatable.
That first year, her junior year, Western Branch would go on to finish 4th at states in the 4x8 and run 9:18.25. Both a school record and best finish at States in school history. Ebony anchored that team. Individually she also embraced the Branch way or competing in a whole lot more events. She now competed in the 100H, 3200, and even ran XC on top of her normal events.
By 2014, her senior year, she was a leader of that team and with her anchoring, took them to new heights. This was the start of their 4x8 dynasty and she 100% was the one who started it all.
That season though was a story of races. It began with their qualifying race at the Penn Relays carnival. That quartet ran in less than ideal conditions to break last year's (2013) school record (9:19) and qualified for the Championship of America final. In the final though they went off and ran a blistering 9:03.76.
That time was just .41 seconds off of West Springfield's state record from 2010 and was in no small part thanks to Ebony's 2:09 split. Her split ranked 3rd amongst all of the athletes in the final and helped Branch finish 4th in the race.
Just a few short weeks later Those Bruins would go on to win their first state title in the 4x8 with a 9:02.11 state record. Ebony anchored. Then later that month Western Branch would make history by becoming the first VA team to break the nine minute barrier. They clocked an insane 8:52.38 to win the national title. Ebony split 2:10 to bring them home.
That race was her final race in a Bruins' uniform but just the start of Branch's dynasty. In 2015 they would go on to win NBN indoors and set the state record of 9:02.27. Outdoors that same quartet would win gold watches at the Penn Relays, finish second at NBN outdoors, win another state title, and run 9:02 which ranked third all-time.
The following year, 2016, Branch would break their own state record outdoors and ran 8:51.03 just two weeks after running 8:51.61 to win their third consecutive state title outdoors.
Looking back Touks is quick to note at how integral Ebony was to the Western Branch program. Though they certainly would have still won state team titles without her, she is the one who made Branch the deadliest program in the USA. He is also quick to note it was not a straight trajectory and that behind the scenes there were nerves, ups, and downs.
"Our girls were very intimidated when we started competing. Sometimes, being that they were the only team made of African American young ladies, they didn't feel like they belonged to that event. It took several races and failures to figure out our strength."
Since 2013, Ebony's first year as a Bruin, Western Branch has broken the state 4x8 record four times, appears on the all-time lists nine times in the 4x8, won five state 4x8 titles, won two national titles, won two sets of Penn Relays gold watches, and also has had multiple 800m individual state champions.
Looking back six years after her graduation Ebony now holds zero school records and only one of her relay teams ranks at best third all-time for the school. Her role as a catalyst though has led to more success for more people and for the entire state than any one time or race could do.