After winning both the boys and girls Virginia AAA state indoor track championships in 2001, Lake Braddock's Bob Digby said this season was the worst he had experienced in 17 years of coaching.
"Three kids with mono, a broken ankle, [Meredith] Brill's hamstring, Alex [VanHeuven] banged up all season," he said, standing amongst his jubilant Bruins at the George Mason University Fieldhouse.
"Who'd of thought we would have pulled it together here? Not me."
Lake Braddock's girls indoor track team won its second consecutive state title—and its seventh over 17 years—in a fierce competition that was decided in the final race Saturday afternoon.
"Last year we knew three events before the end we had it wrapped up. [This year], it went down to the last second, and we had to surprise people in every event," said VanHeuven, the Bruins' senior star in the field events.
"I have never been so proud to wear Lake Braddock gear in my life."
The Bruins (51 points) won the team title without a single individual champion. Instead, the Bruins used several personal-best performances to outscore regional champ Oakton (42) and Salem (46).
Many of those points came in the technically coached field events. "I don't think that's an accident," said coach Mike Mangan. "They work hard every day to make sure their form is right."
WITHOUT ANY POTENT runners in the short-distance races, Lake Braddock needed a strong performance from its field competitors to keep pace with favored Salem and Oakton.
Salem's Amy Seward topped VanHeuven twice in the field events: in Friday night's long jump and Saturday's triple jump.
Seward won the long jump with a leap of 18 feet, 07.25 inches. Van Heuven was fifth at 17.10.
In the triple jump, VanHeuven held a lead heading into the final jump. But Seward nailed a personal best 40-01.50 in her last attempt, sending the Salem junior's mother running through the viewing area near the pit yelling "Hallelujah, Hallelujah," her prayers answered with her daughter's clutch leap.
Seward, it seems, was also seeking some divine intervention while standing in the runway prior to the jump.
"I was singing a gospel song, trying to challenge myself," she said. "So I was waiting on Him to give me the jump."
VanHeuven followed with a solid 39-10.50, good enough for second place but not enough to catch Seward.
"I went up to her and congratulated her right away, but I'll also see her outdoors," she said.
At times over the last two seasons, it has appeared that VanHeuven scored nearly all of the Bruins' field points. But Lake Braddock needed more than that if it was going to repeat.
"Who would have thought Ashley Haislip would finish third in the high jump? And then Catherine [Muehlieb]...," said Digby. "Everybody did great."
Haislip, the only freshman in the top eight, had a high jump of 5-04. Muehleib was fourth in the shot put at 37-08.
"I've never done better in the finals before. I just decided to give it everything I could," she said.
The Bruins picked up three more unlikely points from junior Cristina Zuniga in the pole vault (10 feet). After the field events, Lake Braddock was tied with Salem for the lead.
Digby said he realized his team was in contention after the 4x200-meter relay, where Lake Braddock was third in 1 minute, 44.85 seconds.
"I swear to God, we walked out of this place [Friday night] going 'well, maybe we can get a trophy,'" he said, adding that his got his hopes up after the 4x2 "because Kelly [Swain] was coming."
BUT THE USUALLY DEPENDABLE SWAIN came up short in her races, placing eighth in the 1,600-meter run (5:19.98) and fourth in the 3,200-meters (11:17.01), an event she won last year at states.
"The person that would most likely say she let the team down was Kelly [Swain], even though she did exactly what we needed her to do," said Digby, who acknowledged he may have put too much pressure on his junior star. "We thought at the beginning of the meet that 35 points might win this thing, we had to leave her in there [for both races]."
What Digby and the Bruins didn't realize was that Salem and Oakton would have a disastrous event right before Swain's 3,200. Neither Oakton's Kathleen Woody or Salem's top-seeded duo of Lintera Harvin and Andrea Easley placed in the 300-meter dash, and Lake Braddock maintained its slim lead over the two, 40-38.
"Oakton didn't place and Salem didn't place. How did that happen?" asked Digby after the meet.
Swain was able to extend Lake Braddock's lead-seven points over Salem and Oakton-heading into the final event. The Bruins had to finish better than sixth place in the 4x400-meter relay to win the state championship.
For extra psychological motivation, VanHeuven said she told her relay teammates they needed to get fourth place to win.
"They were like, 'you're a genius!' A lie never hurt anyone," joked VanHeuven.
The senior provided a solid first leg, running a PR, and junior Meredith Brill maintained a strong pace in leg two. But it was freshman Jenny Eakins who put Lake Braddock in the winner's circle as a team, holding off Oakton's Keira Carlstrom to set up Courtney Sanders' anchor leg.
"I really wanted to win for Alex," she said in reference to her relay partner. "It was so nerve-wracking."
The Bruins nerves were calmed for a moment after the 4x4 team placed third overall in 4:00.23. But it was only for a moment; soon, Lake Braddock's coaches and athletes were joyously screaming and exchanging embraces, having repeated as state champions.
"One of the things that's amazing about our program is that our kids are so tough," said Digby. "[Today they] stepped it up when it mattered."