For Albemarle cross-country coach Cathy Coffman and her staff, last Friday's Class 5 girls state championship was the fitting ending for a group of young runners that bonded like no other group of runners she had worked with over her 13 years of coaching for the team.
And with a tough Midlothian team giving the Patriots a strong challenge for the team title, every relationship was needed.
The challenge was strong enough that even a well-educated spectator needed to count quickly as each team's runners crossed different points on The Oatlands course. "Hmm.. there's Albemarle 1, Midlo 1, Albemarle 2, Midlo 2, 3, Albemarle 3, Midlo..no wait, that's another school... Albemarle... I think.."
After the race, at the finish line, both groups of runners (and coaches and parents) looked like spin doctors at a presidential candidate debate, each claiming victory. Yet as the minutes passed, and the math skills sharpened, the final result became clear, marked by the crescendo of voices from the Albemarle group.
Eventually, it would be Albemarle on top with 48 points, and Midlothian the runner-up with 54.
Adding to the celebration was the crowning of the individual winner, Albemarle's own Arianna DeBoer, who outpaced the field to break the tape at 18:47.
With the team and individual victories in hand, the Albemarle coaches were elated, yet reflective after remembering the dedication and effort required to get this point.
"It's not about us as coaches," said Coffman, circled by her staff of Chris Thomas, Kim Vibes, Jack Wren, and Shelley Knewstep-Watkins. "It's about them, the runners, having heart with the uncertainty of having a season. This group is the most positive, cohesive, genuine, with integrity, their love for each other."
The team's mettle was tested early during the pandemic, As the teams could not hold formal conditioning sessions, and then practices in the summer and fall, the senior leaders conducted the practices. "They showed such heart and leadership," said Coffman. "We gave them the workouts, but the seniors led the way."
For Albemarle, like many other teams, dealing with attrition in the number of runners, due to COVID, was also a factor, and the squad, which usually numbers around 40-45 was whittled to 21 for the spring version of cross-country.
But the Patriots pushed forward, and went through the season virtually unchallenged, even winning their region with a near-perfect 16 points.
And being a team from near Charlottesville meant that they were hill prepared for The Oatlands. "We were not at all intimidated by this course," confessed Coffman.
William and Mary commit DeBoer could not help but enjoy her last high school cross-country race.
"(It's) my true sport," said DeBoer, who won a 3200-meter state title in track just before the pandemic (Class 5 indoor in February 2020). "It's where the team is with me the most."
She singled out two teammates, Cassidy Guyton (7th - 20:04), and Jenna Coleman (8th - 20:13), as the reasons for the win. "I knew (the team score) would be close," said DeBoer. "But having Cassidy and Jenna score that high as our second and third runners is why we won."
Rounding out the Patriot lineup was freshman Madelyn Gypson (21st), Olivia St. Amend (23rd), Madeline Kronebusch (26th), and Bella Sonen (48th).
"Thankfully, a lot of girls stayed with it," said DeBoer, summarizing the thoughts shared by many.
1 - Arianna DeBoer - Albemarle 18:47
2 - Landin Bostian - Mills Godwin 19:02
3 - Gabriella Garcia - Midlothian High School 19:10
4 - Mackenzie Keller - Freedom (South Riding) 19:34
5 - Sidney Walters - Deep Run 19:43
1 Albemarle 48 - 1+6+7+16+18 (20+37) 2:33 1-5 Split | 20:19 Avg
2 Midlothian High School 54 - 2+5+12+14+21 (22+25) 2:17 1-5 Split | 20:31 Avg
3 Deep Run 83 - 4+11+13+15+40 (41+51) 3:08 1-5 Split | 21:05 Avg
4 Freedom (South Riding) 96 - 3+10+17+24+42 (45+49) 3:30 1-5 Split | 21:14 Avg
5 Princess Anne High School 111 - 8+9+29+31+34 (55+56) 1:54 1-5 Split | 21:31 Avg