Dolph Null, the Potomac Falls High cross country coach, had boys’ and girls’ teams with all kinds of question marks going into the fall season several weeks ago. His top girls’ runner, Christina Lee, was coming off a serious injury. And most of his top boys’ runners from the Panthers’ 2008 Region II championship team had graduated.
But, over the course of the autumn campaign, things came together for Null’s squads. Lee, although not back to top form, was a consistent leader and steady No. 1 runner for a Panther girls’ squad that proved to have both outstanding depth and team camaraderie.
And on the boys’ side, numerous team members who had not been among the Panthers’ top line of runners last fall stepped up to become vital parts of the Panthers’ success this season.
Both the boys and girls teams showed just how far they have progressed by capturing their respective Dulles District championships on Oct. 22 at Ida Lee Park in Leesburg. The boys, with almost an entire different cast of runners from last year, successfully defended last year’s district crown with another first place finish. The girls’ team, meanwhile, also garnered a district crown on the challenging Ida Lee course.
“The girls ran together as a team,” said Null. “[Their success] was kind of a surprise. Christina [Lee] was coming off an injury from last fall and I didn’t know what to expect from her. But she’s run well enough to help the team this season.”
Lee, as the team’s top runner, came up with a terrific championship race, finishing second overall with a time of 20 minutes, 54 seconds. Julie Strange (19:53) of Loudoun County was the girls’ champion.
Null was careful not to push Lee too hard during the fall season for fear of an injury relapse that could possibly jeopardize her ability to compete the remainder of her senior year as a key member of the Panthers’ track and field program. Lee has come back nicely from her injury and been able to regularly compete in cross country races.
“She’s run all fall,” said Null. “She has not run her best. I’ve been very tentative with her and tried to hold her back. She’s a hard worker and has been a very strong part of our program for four years.”
A lot of the pressure that normally goes with being the top runner was lessened for Lee because of the talented team members throughout the Panthers’ line-up. Lee did not have to be at her best all the time for Potomac Falls to have success because other girls were capable of picking up the slack.
“She’s had great support,” said Null.
And that certainly proved true at districts. Along with Lee’s second place finish, the Panthers had two other runners among the top five – senior Natalie Wright (third place) and sophomore Koeley Brady (fifth place).
Also earning top 15 medals to earn All-District accolades were freshman Ariana Staffen (13th place) and junior Rachel Hagen (15th). Two other runners, senior Rachel Diniega (18th) and senior Chelsea King (31st) ran well.
Potomac Falls (38 points) finished in front of second place Loudoun County (48) in the team standings. Briar Woods (69) finished third in the eight-team meet and Dominion (84) was fourth.
“It’s been a great season, more than I expected,” said Null, of his girls’ squad. “We knew Loudoun County would be tough. I think it was a team effort that allowed us to rise up and win it.”
<b>ON THE BOYS’ SIDE</b>, this year’s Potomac Falls’ team was trying to replace five key runners who had been loss to graduation from last year’s district champions. Null knew he would have solid frontrunner talent in this year’s line-up in senior Alvaro Morales and junior Juan Campos. But he also knew other runners who played less significant roles last year would need to emerge as consistently strong members of the team.
“The question mark was who we would be able to put behind [Morales and Campos],” said Null.
Null was unsure after last year if some of the 2008 team’s backup runners would even come out for the team again in ’09. In particular, he hoped Michael Volaric and Chris Johnson, two team members who had not been among the Panthers’ top seven runners in ‘08, would return and step into more significant roles. They did.
“I had some [runners] who really had to stand back as juniors last year,” said Null. “Those two [Volaric and Johnson] stuck with me.”
The coach was also uncertain if 2008 sophomore runners Nick Mogensen, Patrick Wilson and Connor Wilson would remain with the team, but the trio also returned. So, while less experienced, the Panther boys at least had good potential for this season.
That potential came out in full force at districts last week where seven of the top 11 finishers were from Potomac Falls. Campos was the Panthers’ top finisher, third overall at 17:29. Volaric (fifth place) was the next Potomac Falls runner to cross the finish line. The other top Potomac Falls finishers, from seventh through 11th, respectively, were Mogensen, Johnson, Morales, Patrick Wilson and Connor Wilson.
In the team standings, Potomac Falls (32 points) bested second place Loudoun County (58) and third place Dominion (76).
“We ran as a team,” said Null. “We didn’t run our best. Ida Lee is a tough course. The first mile is relatively flat and wide open. It’s [more] challenging after the first mile with lots of turns. It’s a relatively slow course.”
Potomac Falls’ top seven runners each earned medals and All-District honors as a result of finishing among the top 15.
“To have all seven of those boys make All-District, I’m very pleased with that,” said Null. “It shows our depth and the commitment of the kids.”
The Potomac Falls’ boys and girls were scheduled to compete at the Region II championships earlier this week on Tuesday in Earlysville, outside of Charlottesville. Top four finishers on both sides will advance to states on Nov. 14 at Great Meadows.
On the girls’ side, six of the state’s top double-A steams are part of the strong Region II, including Western Albemarle, Brentsville District (Nokesville), Millbrook (Winchester), Sherando (Stephens City) and Loudoun County.
“It’s going to be a dog fight with those teams [and us] vying for four spots,” said Null, of regionals. “I’m worried that our girls will have to have their best day.”
The boys, Null said, were likely have an easier time qualifying for states. Top Region II boys’ teams include Western Albemarle, Brentsville District and Handley (Winchester).
<b>DOMINION HIGH</b> had a strong showing at districts with the boys’ team finishing third and the girls fourth, both qualifying for regionals. Senior Buffy Misanin finished 10th overall in the girls’ race to lead the Titans. Junior Barbara Rion also earned a medal with her 12th place finish.
For the Dominion boys, junior JT Duke was second overall, finishing behind champion Tommy Curtin of Loudoun County. Also for the Titans, senior Nick Sharp finished 12th.