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Oakton Boys Best in State

Runners take to cross-country course at Great Meadow in The Plains for Virginia AAA championship meet.

Oakton coach Phil Tiller’s face lit up when asked to explain his T-shirt after Saturday’s Virginia AAA cross-country championships at Great Meadow in The Plains.

As Tiller glanced down at his chest to take another peek, yellow lettering flowed on top of a maroon base and the words “D-Squad” sat beneath an Oakton logo. No, it wasn’t an academic reference but simply a shot of brevity for the word “distance.”

Tiller became Oakton’s head coach eight years ago and was handed the exact same shirt as a sort of a coach-player olive branch of goodwill.

“It was a real honor because it means that you’re one of the hard workers,” Tiller said.

Oakton’s D-Squad worked its way to a state title on Saturday, finishing with 71 points to hold off Albemarle County (117) and Douglas Freeman (149). According to Tiller, the term was conceptualized after Oakton won its first state title, all the way back in 1978.

On the 30-year anniversary of that day, Oakton snagged its second title in the past four years after atoning for last year’s disappointing fourth-place finish, when now-departed Joe LoRusso has the Cougars brimming with hope. This year, Oakton was led by junior Andrew McCullen, who finished ninth with a time of 15 minutes, 55 seconds.

“We had that run in 2005 and it was very, very special for us,” Tiller added. “I knew that this one would feel great as well. Finally the team can swallow [last year’s performance] and say 2007 was 2007. It’s over. We can put the ‘2008’ on the side of the school and remember it forever.”

Though the Northern Region didn’t lay claim to an individual state champion, several local runners made the area proud.

In their final race at Great Meadow, Leoule and Tihut Degfae -- both seniors -- of Edison both posted top 15 finishes. Leoule Degfae, who won Patriot District and Northern Region individual titles during the past two weeks, took third place with a time of 15:29.

Tihut Degfae finished 13th, completing the 3.1-mile course in 15:59. Tihut Degfae had been bothered by an early-season hip flexor injury but showed no ill effects on Saturday.

“The first mile I had to warm up to it because I didn’t want to agitate my injury,” Tihut Degfae said. “I felt pretty good so I started picking up people the second mile, and the third mile came around and I tried to work the hills and get a good spot for the finish.”

“Nobody in the front was breathing hard, so you had to wait until the last stretch to see who was going to win,” Leoule Degfae said. “I just ran with [the leaders] almost throughout the whole race until the last straightaway. That’s when they started separating from me.”

Earlier in the day, Woodson junior Erica Howes took third place (18:29) in the Virginia AAA girls race. After battling a stress fracture that caused discomfort in her shin and knee, Howes finished fifth during last week’s region meet. But nothing compared to walking out of the runners’ area and seeing your teammates, classmates and friends with faces painted, screaming and holding signs for you.

“It was really exciting. I saw them during the race and I grinned,” Howes said of her supporters. “I can’t really wrap my head around this right now. It’s just so exciting.”

<b>IN OTHER RACE ACTION</b>, Jefferson freshman Sarah Stites had an impressive debut, grabbing fourth place with a time of 18:30. … Lake Braddock’s Liana Epstein, after winning Patriot District and Northern Region titles at Burke Lake Park, finished sixth with a time of 18:46. … Herndon’s Carolyn Hennessey finished ninth (18:52) and West Potomac’s Julianne Bigler (18:53) rounded out the Top 10.