In the midst of Oakton's state winning celebration gathering at The Oatlands on a Thursday afternoon in late April, it was hard to tell that the Class 6 boys' champion team had accomplished their feat on a cold blustery day. Their attire failed to match the weather conditions.
Amid the sea of runners, parents and coaches, the festivity resembled more of a luau with an array of Hawaiian hats - blue, pink, and yellow among the mix.
And in the middle of the group, holding court, was Cougar coach Matt Kroetch, pineapple in hand. Certainly, there was an explanation?
"They're throwaway hats," said Kroetch, who in late April became the first Oakton Cougar to win a state championship as both a runner (AAA - 2005) and coach. "I usually get them at the Dollar Store. This year, they didn't have any winter hats available, so I got these."
How about the pineapple?
"It's part of the Oakton tradition," replied Kroetch.
And what a long and storied tradition there is at the Vienna, VA school. The 2020 ('21?) boys title was the Cougar boys' fifth in 43 years, and as it turns out, the stories behind the Oakton Way are as entertaining as the individual and team performances that sparked the championships.
To better understand the birth of the Oakton tradition, one must travel back to 1978, when a young coach named Martin Smith led a group of runners, headed by All-American Jim Hill, to its first Virginia state championship.
It was a quiet September Saturday on the C&O Canal in Washington, D.C. as Smith, an Alexandria, VA native, who arrived at the school in 1975 at the request of Phil Welker, Oakton's first coach, gathered his top 14 runners on the dusty horse trail which runs parallel to the Potomac River. Smith, a national-level marathoner whose own career was curtailed by health ailments, was known for his boundless energy ("What are we going to do today?? --- TRAIN!!!") and love for his avocation. On this day, the Cougars would run 10 miles for time. The objective - to see how many could break the one-hour barrier.
Hill, who had become the team ace as a sophomore, was also the ringleader when it came to getting his teammates to practice during the summer, and recalled the months leading up to the banner season.
"In June of 1978, I thought Oakton had enough distance talent to make a run for the state title. The trick was getting seven to 10 guys running all summer, " said Hill, who later founded and remains president of SportHill Apparel, a sports clothing and gear company based in Eugene, Oregon. "In early July, I started calling and encouraging my teammates to start running every day. We would try to meet at least a few days a week, but the expectation was that we were running every day."
Hill, who would win the individual AAA state championship and go on to earn All-American status five times at the University of Oregon (3:56.41 miler) was persistent. "And I kept at them all summer long, which for the most part worked. One runner in particular, Gordon Cobb, went from a middle of the pack runner to top-20 at state, mainly because he was running close to 100 miles a week," a thought which was daunting to Hill. "I was a little nervous about that type of mileage, so I shot for 70-90 (miles) a week. Everyone stayed healthy and we went undefeated. I just dug out the result sheet from that race, and our seventh man ran 16:16 (for 5K)."
On that day along the Canal, nine runners broke 60 minutes for the 10-mile run. Smith went on to win five NCAA titles, while coaching at George Mason, Virginia (three national women's titles between CC and indoor track), Wisconsin (two men's CC championships), Oklahoma, and for the past eight years, at Iowa State. In all, he has coached over 300 All-Americans.
But was Smith really as vocal as some of his former runners have claimed? Hill reflected on his first international competition, which occurred soon after graduating from high school.
"In 1979, I made the world junior cross-country team. The IAAF world champs was in March in Limerick, Ireland. Martin wanted to go, but he had used up all of his sick days at Oakton. Somehow he finagled time off and showed up for the full week with the team in Ireland.
The race course was nothing but mud, three or more laps around a steeplechase horse track without the steeples. I got off to a slow start. Jeff Nelson and I took up the rear of the pack in the first 100 meters. I was struggling in the mud and started worrying about finishing near last."
And at that point, Smith made himself known to his runners, and quite a few of the Limerick faithful, according to Hill.
"Somehow, over the noise of the large local crowd, I was able to hear Martin yelling encouragement during the entire race. Jeff and I slowly worked our way through the field with Jeff finishing 5th (17:05), while I was 12th (17:19). The best I would have done without (Smith's) encouragement was 50th."
Hill later sent video evidence of the event, which can be found at
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Md2RcloNBC0. The junior race portion starts at the 13:30 mark. It was also summed up in this article from Iowa State about its track coach..
Entering the New Millennium
The Cougar boys remained competitive through the 80's and 90's, but it would be twenty years before they earned their next state championship, clinching the AAA win in 1998. Andrew Macleod placed third on The Plains' Great Meadow course (15:48.3), and Jacob Frey was fifth (15:54.9) to lead the Oakton charge, while sophomore Matt Maline, a second-team Washington Post All-Met team honoree, served as the team's #3 runner (11th - 16:07.5). Rounding out the top-seven were Drew Gaibler (29th - 16:49.1), Mike Collins (47th - 17:15), Ben Hannas (64th - 17:31.6), and Mike Krappners (90th - 17:57.70).
Oakton won the Concorde district that season with 53 points, as Macleod paced the team around the 2.98-mile Burke Lake course in 15:11, followed three seconds later by Frye. The team would also serve as district champions in 2000, as Maline set the Concorde individual standard for Oakton with a time of 15:07.
Girls Shine Bright Light
Not to be outdone, the Cougar girls started making waves as the 21st century began. Leading the way for new coach Terry Weir's teams was Keira Carlstrom.
Carlstrom became the first Cougar to make noise in the Foot Locker South Regional race, just missing the top-eight placing to qualify for the national meet in San Diego (9th), but breaking 18 minutes (17:55) in the effort.
At the time, Carlstrom told Milestat.com, "Just thinking about racing motivates me to run because I know I need to be prepared when I step onto the line. My coach motivates me to run. He knows exactly what to tell me to get me all excited about every race and workouts. My teammates motivate me to run because I want to see us succeed as a team and I want to be able to contribute everything I can into our goal."
While Weir and Carlstrom helped to bring the girls' program to the forefront; however, there was one more element that helped the Vienna team reach the next level.
In 2001, Weir moved on from the program, and the Cougars' next coach was brand new to both coaching and teaching. Yet, Phil Tiller brought a youthful spark and can-do attitude which added to the results that Weir's teams had achieved.
Recalling his entry to Oakton, Tiller, now living and working in the United Kingdom, said, "When I started at Oakton I was a few months out of college, and had just started my first "real" teaching job." His age was quite noticeable. "I wasn't that much older than the seniors on the team, so it was both easy and it was challenging to build the relationships. I didn't have any coaching experience and so I had to build a new kind of trust when I took over from Terry Weir, the Oakton coach at the time."
But hard work prevailed, according to Tiller. "I worked my socks off and so did the kids. Little by little, and year by year we built something special. The goal was always to build a team that could perform consistently."
Tiller started as the head of both programs, but in 2008, the addition of Alisa Byars as an assistant brought with it a continuation of accomplishments for both squads that carried the Cougars for the next decade.
2005 - Third Time is the Charm as Both Teams Make Noise
In the fall of 2005, the Oakton boys began a five-year run as district champion, with regional titles in each year except 2007. But the program may have seen its greatest success in 2005 as the boys, led by Tiller, won their third AAA state crown, with the girls placing second. In fact, the girls had planted the seed of future success the previous season, placing in the top-five at the prestigious Great American Cross-Country Festival in Cary, NC, the site of the Foot Locker Southeast Region meet.
On that day, the Cougars finished fourth overall in the race of champions, behind Saratoga Springs (N.Y.) and Smoky Hill (Colo.), the top two girls' teams in the nation. Oakton had 192 points to finish ahead of four teams ranked in the top 10 in the Southeast region.
Leading the way was junior Kayley Byrne in 35th (19:21), with senior Allegra Smith right behind at 41st. Senior Danielle Light placed 56th, followed by junior Carley Hudson (60th) and sophomore Meredith Tighe (70th).
However, it was in the 2005 season that a key connection was born, according to Tiller.
"I was fortunate to work with many great runners, one of them being Matt Kroetch, and it brings me enormous joy to see him at the helm of that wonderful Oakton program," said Tiller. "I am still in touch with every one of the eleven runners who won the state title in 2005."
Almost sounds like a book worthy topic. In fact, it is, according to the former coach.
"I am writing a book which focuses on the history of the team prior to the 2005 season, and the quest from a group of runners to get the ultimate prize," added Tiller. "The team came together in a moment of great sadness, and despite the odds they overcame everything, together. It was a team that I am enormously proud of, and the book is essentially a "thank you" to those 11 boys for the way they came together as a team. The 2005 team was my first group of seniors who'd only ever had me as a coach, so the bond was especially tight."
Perhaps the only thing tighter in 2005 was the margin of victory at States. Oakton, led by James Phillips (fourth - 15:42), Kroetch (seventh - 15:51), Tommy Mason (16th - 16:17), Jon Bernal and Alex Nissen (53rd and 54th) scraped their way to the podium with a score of 95, just three points ahead of Thomas Jefferson S&T (98), and four over Midlothian (99).
Tiller time continued into 2007, with the girls scoring a second state runner-up, and culminated in 2008 with the boys' fourth state title. On that day at Great Meadow, the Cougar seven posted this winning result sheet.
7 Andrew McCullen, Jr 15:55 5:08
11 Neal Hendricks, Sr 16:13 5:14
13 Patrick Fulghum, Jr 16:17 5:15
15 Chris Weil, Sr 16:29 5:19
25 Karlan Cruz, Sr 16:39 5:22
33 Dante Morales, Sr 16:45 5:24
39 Matt Woodhouse, Jr 16:50 5:26
Time = 1:21:32 Places = 71 pts.
McCullen would go on to post a top-20 time on Northern Virginia's fabled Burke Lake course (14:49.8). Tiller would leave in 2009, handing the program over to Byers, his former assistant.
Girls Team breaks Through
Under Byers, the Lady Cougars finally found the winners gazebo at Great Meadow. After several top-five finishes, and a trio of runners-up (2005, 2007, 2012) trophies, the girls' team finally won the overall Class 6 championship in 2013, its first ever.
Leading the pack was Foot Locker national finalist Allie Klimkiewicz and Hailey Dougherty. On the Great Meadow course, Klimkiewicz placed fourth in 18:01, while Dougherty, the team's only senior, was eighth (18:21). Freshmen Casey Kendall (14th - 18:29) and Leya Salis (24th - 18:56) progressed greatly throughout the fall, mirroring the improvement of the squad, which was strengthened by national-level competition during the season. Kara Kendall rounded out the top-five with a 26th place finish, also breaking 19 minutes, by a second.
Byers' comments after the race may were most entertaining. Speaking of the reception from her peers, she quipped to MileStat's Brandon Miles, "I was in disbelief, even after coaches came up to congratulate me, I felt like I was being Punk'd. Apologies to the coaches who told me congrats during the boys race, I was waiting for Ashton Kutcher to come out and wasn't as warm as I could have been. I never checked the results on-line; it takes away some of the fun. When I saw Hailey (Dougherty) though, I lost it. What a sweet ending!"
The previous week, on the boys side, John Stoney joined the ranks among top-40 Burke Lake performances with a 14:54 to win at the Region 6A North Championships. Klimkiewicz's time of 17:06 is also the Oakton girls' standard and a top-20 over the 47-year history of the course.
And with the boys fifth championship, the circle of success was partially completed. Tiller and Hill gave the boys team its pre-race pep talks (presumably by Zoom), while Carlstrom (now soon-to-turn-pro Keira D'Amato) revved up the girls squad. At the end of the day on the Oatlands Plantation in Leesburg, VA, at least for the Oakton teams, and their coach, the former Cougar standout Matt Kroetch, cheap Hawaiian hats and pineapples were the recommended accessories for the after party.