The Class 6 girls' state championship race at The Oatlands saw a breakthrough for a couple of individuals and one team, as the youth movement was in full force among the top-15 runners, while the team championship went to a school that gave Virginia's most populated city its first cross-country title since 1979.
While the pre-race favorites included last year's runner-up Aniya Mosley of Ocean Lakes, and Herndon sophomore Gillian Bushee', it was McLean sophomore Thais Rolly who crossed the line first in 18:36.
For Rolly, (first name is pronounced TY- eese), the win was a surprise. Although she passed Bushee' on the final stretch last week to claim the Northern Region race at Burke Lake in 17:53, last year's 44th place finisher was simply hoping to break into the state top-10 this year.
There was one valid reason. It had been almost 18 months since the Highlander last ran at The Oatlands. So, on Monday, Rolly and her father Philippe, himself a national-class masters' marathoner, took a visit to Leesburg. "Lucky that it's close to us," she noted after the race on Thursday.
What she found was a course somewhat different from the one she competed on in 2019. "They must run horses here because I remembered a lot of holes. They were filled in It also looked like they had cut the grass well."
The pre-race visit to the course helped her develop a conservative, yet effective race plan. "I knew it would be fast in the beginning because the first mile is almost all downhill." However, she had not factored in the wind gusts (some reaching 25 mph) until arriving yesterday morning. Rolly, who has generally started races slow and picked up the pace in the second and third miles had to make the decision that would make her the champion. "I usually start out slower, but because of the wind gusts, I decided to stay right behind the first pack."
The move would be wise. Rolly passed through the first mile in "about 5:50," close to her normal pace, but noticed that there were a few runners ahead of her. But not THAT many.
Taking advantage of her knowledge of the terrain, she began systematically picking off her competitors, and reached the 2.5-mile mark in third. Rolly caught Bushee' on the ensuing downhill, then made up 15 meters on Battlefield's Sailor Eastman along the back fence line before taking the lead just before the final turn and stretch, pulling away for a two-second victory.
While Eastman was surprised to be caught ("I didn't hear her coming"), there was no shame for the Bobcat freshman, who is in her first year of organized running. Said Eastman, "I was a little nervous, but gave it my best. I just wish I could have pushed at the finish." For the transformed distance swimmer, her runner-up placing in 18:38, just two months after a third-place finish in the state indoor 1000 (won by Mosley in 2:51.64) bodes well for a bright future in track and cross-country.
Bushee' was third, while Mosley placed ninth. However, Mosley's Dolphin team won the team championship, the first for a Virginia Beach school since Kendall Tata and Kempsville claimed the girls AAA crown in 1979.
The moment did not go unnoticed, said long time Ocean Lakes coach Mike Nestor. "We wanted to make history. These girls have so much heart and passion."
In fact, Nestor could place the day that his team bonded and "won the championship." It certainly wasn't on Wednesday when a false alarm rattled all of the Dolphin runners out of bed and into their hotel parking lot for a true midnight hour.
Instead, the transformational day happened on the Thursday during spring break when the team, whose only hills for training are the man-made ones 12 miles due northwest of Ocean Lakes at a former land fill (Mount Trashmore), got into vehicles and drove 230 miles to Loudoun County.
"We made an 11-hour day of it," said Nestor, adding. "But we wouldn't have had it any other way. The Oatlands was the most daunting course we had ever seen. Asked if that list included the regular state site, Great Meadow, he added, "Yes."
Coupled with having to run the Region 6A meet just five days earlier, Nestor was hopeful for a third-place finish. To his surprise, the team, behind Mosley (ninth - 19:44), Maggie Reed (17th- 20:08), Ryan Smith (19th - 20:12), Austin Heft (21st - 20:26), and sophomore Sophia Pommerenk (29th - 21:05) totaled 63 points after the individual runners places were removed. Elise Richardson (30th - 21:12) and Maggie Furco (33rd - 21:25) rounded out the championship lineup.
For the record, there were no seniors running with the Ocean Lakes girls' team on Thursday.
Top Five Teams
- Ocean Lakes 63
- West Springfield 78
- Battlefield 83
- Robinson 104
- Herndon 127
Top Five Individuals
- Rolly -McLean - 18:36
- Eastman - Battlefield - 18:38
- Bushee' - Herndon - 19:13
- Addie Shorter - Franklin County - 19:23
- Hailey Yentz - Patriot - 19:30