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National championship is crowning achievement for Loudoun Valley cross-country

A group of seven Loudoun Valley runners - Peter Morris, Sam Affolder, Colton Bogucki, Jacob Hunter, Connor Wells, Chase Dawson and Kevin Carlson - combined forces to run away with the team crown at the Nike Cross Nationals.—Courtesy Photo
The first in Viking green to steam across the finish line was Peter Morris, cruising in before all but 11 of more than 200 high school distance runners in the Nike Cross Nationals Dec. 2 on Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Ore.

The next guy to wear that color was junior Sam Affolder, his tall frame loping over the line less than eight seconds after Morris to earn the nation’s 23rd spot. Colton Bogucki, a senior like Morris, came home 11 ticks after Affolder, then junior Jacob Hunter - the coaches’ son - stormed in not four seconds later.

As junior Connor Wells, the fifth Viking to finish, was besting most of the select national pack with his 95th place, a suspicion snuck up on Loudoun Valley High School co-head cross-country coach Marc Hunter. Had they just won a national championship?

By the time senior Chase Dawson and sophomore Kevin Carlson met back up with their five teammates after all had endured the 5,000-meter course under overcast Pacific Northwest skies, the coach was just about sure of it.

“I’d calculated in my head our approximate team score and knew it was pretty low,” Hunter said, “but I did not know if any other team scored as low or better.”

He soon knew. The post-race trophy presentation revealed the NXN’s third-place team, a Denver area school named Mountain Vista. When the runner-up was announced as Fayetteville High School of Manlius, N.Y., the boys from Western Loudoun knew they had earned the title of undisputed national champions.

It’s a culminating achievement for a program on meteoric rise since 2014, when Hunter and his wife Joan took over Valley’s previously unheralded cross-country teams.

The Viking boys raced to their first state title in 2015, and have repeated the feat in both seasons since. In this year’s state meet, they set an unbreakable Virginia High School League record with a lowest-possible team score of 15.

Valley spent much of the 2017 season ranked No. 1 nationally by multiple publications, and won the NXR Southeast regional meet Nov. 25 - avenging last year’s disappointing third place - to earn a spot in Portland.

Furthermore, the Valley girls have raced to second place in each of the past four state meets. The Vikings have produced both male and female individual state champions and Foot Locker Nationals contenders. The number of kids hoping to run for Valley has more than tripled during the past four years to 178. Milestat currently ranks Valley’s junior varsity squads among the state’s most promising.

Winning the national high school championship, however, is an entirely new level.

“We have won many state titles and even set the state record for lowest score ever. But nothing compares to the emotions of standing on the podium with the team after a race and getting the national title trophy,” said Morris, who along with Bogucki will run next for the University of Virginia, the latest Valley runners to ascend to the collegiate or professional ranks.

Hunter got emotional when he learned the Vikings’ team score was a mere 89, bettering Manlius by 70 and setting a new record for lowest in the history of the Nike-sponsored event.

“I was not expecting that,” the coach said. “A few tears came as I reflected on how the boys had maxed out to earn that huge point differential.”

Maxing out

Valley cross-country coaches Marc and Joan Hunter are accomplished distance runners in their own rights, as well as being longtime teachers of the sport.

During an 11-season stint as co-head coaches for Reston’s South Lakes High School, they helped develop world-class miler Alan Webb. They’ve founded a program dedicated to youth track and cross-country in Northern Virginia. Their son Drew brought the national spotlight to Valley when he won the 3,000-meter race in the famous Penn Relays and the two-mile run in the New Balance Nationals, plus a host of VHSL state championships.

But a team national championship “wasn’t even on our radar screen,” Joan said.

“When we took over the program,” she explained, “we were just focused on working with the kids we had, changing the culture, raising the expectations and commitment levels of our athletes so they could give themselves a chance to believe they could be good.”

They believe it now. Joan uses the term “Drew Hunter effect” to describe the residual impact her son, now a professional runner, has had on Valley’s cross-country athletes.

“Drew set a high standard for himself as a student and an athlete,” she said. “I think the kids at our school recognized Drew as just a normal kid and thought that if he could achieve great things, they could too.”

The national championship season began with Affolder, a highly regarded runner from Pennsylvania, transferring to Valley. He was teamed to a talented crop of Vikings coming off a second state championship.

With Affolder added to Morris, Bogucki, Dawson, Hunter, Wells, Carlson, Jacob Windle and Kellen Hasle for 2017, Marc Hunter noticed that his returning runners could add up to something monumental. He fashioned a chart showing a path to a national championship and taped it to his laptop. The goal was set.

“I never dreamed of a national championship until after the Cross season last year,” the coach explained.

All season long, Morris also felt like more could be in store.

“By the end of my junior year and the start of senior year, all the guys on the team knew we had the chance to do something special,” he said. “We’ve put in a lot of work since June to make this moment happen.”

Winning the big one

It was more than speed and stamina that brought a national cross-country championship to Western Loudoun. It was strategy.

Valley was assigned the right-most starting spot and confronted with a sharp left turn 200 meters in. The Vikings adjusted their gameplan just before the starter’s gun.

“There was no other option but to get out fast,” Marc Hunter said. “We decided to put our fastest and biggest guys - guys that like contact - up front to create a wedge for the other four guys. Jacob, Sam and Colton would lead that wedge.”

The Vikings sprinted out hard, then established their pace. Joan observed that the boys’ speed slowed little over the race’s final 2,000 meters as one Viking after another crossed the finish line.

“To do what they did meant executing and selling out on race day,” she said.

Upon returning to Purcellville Dec. 3, the Vikings were escorted through town by police cars and fire trucks. People lined the streets to cheer.

Marc said the national title “has to be near or at the top” of his many favorite coaching achievements.

“The accomplishments that are most important to me are when longshots are overcome by the sheer will of the athletes,” he said.


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