The Western Albemarle cross country program is recognized throughout the commonwealth as elite.
The boys program has won back-to-back VHSL Class 3 state championships and had a dominating performance last fall at Great Meadow. The girls nearly duplicated the feat, winning the 2017 state championship and finishing second last year to Blacksburg.
With several accomplished runners returning this fall, both programs are eager to make a run at more championship gold.
“It is fun to be the team that other teams are shooting to knock off,” longtime Western Albemarle boys coach Lindy Bain said. “If we run our best and get beat, that’s sports. We are aiming at being the best we can be when it most counts. Each team member is focused on improving and we are looking to see if we can use that to improve on past achievements.”
Bain certainly knows what it takes to succeed in high school cross country. The veteran coach is entering his 32nd year in charge of the Warriors and has guided the boys program to five state championships, including back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.
The boys program returns six of the seven harriers that ran at last year’s state meet, including reigning state champion Joe Hawkes and runner-up Jack Eliason.
The two seniors have been fixtures in the Western Albemarle program for years and they push one another to be better every day.
“Both Hawkes and Jack are rock solid in competition,” Bain said. “They exude confidence, which helps the team focus on the task ahead. The two of them can share the load of leading the pace and enjoying helping the team reach its goals.”
The two runners are the best of friends, but compete in a vastly different manner.
“Hawkes is super driven and competitive, “Bain said. “Jack is very competitive, just a little more laid back. Each brings a little different approach and they work well together. Each of them is psyched about how talented this team is and about what the team may be able to achieve this year. They both understand younger runners look up to them and want to help keep the team tradition strong after they graduate.”
Bain said the Warriors are far from a two-person team.
“We have a super strong duo up front, followed by an extremely strong 3,4,5 close behind,” Bain said. “We have about eight or nine guys vying to be our sixth and seventh runners, all of whom have improved greatly in the past year. There are a lot of veteran runners in the group that will be invaluable in this year’s competition, as well as their leadership. Everyone is working to improve and wants to be ready when it’s their time to shine.”
Western Albemarle’s girls team is just as impressive.
Coach Katie Pugh’s team returns 14 runners from last year’s squad, including all-state performers in senior Sterling Hull and sophomore Jenna Stutzman.
“Our top returning runners are poised to have a real scoring impact on the team,” Pugh said.
Hull and Charlotte Thomas-Clarke are team captains and have been impressive in their leadership role with the team. Juniors Kate Ratcliffe, who finished 16th at last year’s state meet, and Ella Taylor, along with freshmen Jackie Neilon and Jordan Stone, give the Warriors plenty of depth.
“These girls, along with many others, have been consistent over the summer in putting in the work,” Pugh said. “They have had one of their highest mileage summers I can remember and are coming into the season with great base strength to build on. Once we add in more interval training and hill work, they will add speed to their endurance and really have a fantastic season. The team is well-led and inspired by our two captains.”
Western Albemarle should benefit from a couple newcomers this season, including Maeci Frank. The junior middle-distance runner has never run cross country before, but Pugh believes she has the pedigree to leave her mark.
“We have several newcomers that have already had a strong impact on the team,” Pugh said. “This is Maeci’s first cross country season and I think she has great potential to help bridge the gap between our top runners and the pack.”
Pugh said the team’s success is more than just results on the course. Last fall, the team printed up team T-shirts with the logo “Welcome to Success” which outlined the team’s motivation throughout this journey.
“Yes, we would like to continue the team success we have enjoyed over the years and to continue to place high in states, however, as coaches, we stress to the girls that there are far more important forms of success,” Pugh said. “Individually, I want each and every girl to strive to better herself, not only in her running, but the way she interacts with her team members, coaches, parents and teachers. I want the girls to learn different, healthy ways to measure success in their lives. Our close-knit cross country team is one vehicle for them to take risks, occasionally have setbacks to learn from and have the support system they need to reach new levels and types of success.”
Both teams feed off one another.
For more than 30 years, the two programs spend a week of team building in Canaan Valley, West Virginia. From training and hiking, to white-water rafting and cooking meals together, the group learns the importance of teamwork and relying on one another to complete tasks.
Pugh said it sets the tone for the whole season and creates the support group that carries the team during the months ahead.
“This mutual trust manifests in workouts and races as well,” she said. “Last year, our team motto was ‘We do hard things together.’ When the girls are faced with a tough workout or race, the support system they have established allows them to talk to each other, encourage each other, and help each other to push through the stress. As a coach, we can develop incredible workouts and race strategies galore, but if the girls don’t trust and support each other, they won’t reach success.”
“The main objective is for everyone to improve in the sport and use that struggle to be better people,” Bain said. “Most good distance runners are self-motivated. It’s sort of the nature of the beast.”