Alvaro Morales was not necessarily one of the runners who immediately came to mind upon mention of the Potomac Falls High boys’ cross country team last year. That’s because Morales, as a member of a talented, senior-laden Panthers’ line-up in 2008, was a junior and often the sixth or seventh finisher on his team in races.
Though less-heralded, Morales was a contributor for a Panthers boys’ squad that captured both the Dulles District and Region II team titles before garnering a third place mark at the Virginia State AA Championships. Alvaro got better and better throughout the season and ultimately became one of the team’s better postseason racers, finishing ninth overall at districts, 19th at regionals and 34th at states.
This year, the look of the Potomac Falls team has changed dramatically as a result of the graduation losses of its top five runners from 2008 - Josh Hardin, Ryan Hagen, Brian Robinson, Andrew Mott and Josh Berlin. Hardin is currently running collegiately at William & Mary, while Hagen (Virginia Tech) and Robinson (Lynchburg College) are members of their respective college teams.
“We lost five seniors last year, so this is a re-building year,” said Potomac Falls coach Dolph Null. “We are a team looking for a new identity.”
Morales is now the No. 1 runner on an overall younger and lesser experienced Panthers’ team.
“He’s extremely dedicated,” Null. “He puts in a lot of extra miles and does the little things correctly, like stretching and icing. He’s really been a pleasure to work with.”
Earlier in his high school athletic career, Morales played soccer for the Panthers. But as a sophomore he elected to make running his full-time sport and joined the Potomac Falls cross country squad.
“He gave up soccer to become a runner,” said Null, the former Broad Run High coach who is now in his third year at the helm of the Panthers’ program.
Morales and his Potomac Falls teammates competed at the Octoberfest Invitational this past Saturday at the Great Meadows course in The Plains. The mid-season event is one of the biggest meets of the season. In the more competitive varsity `A’ boys’ race, Potomac Falls finished seventh overall among a large field of 51 teams. The Panthers finished with 298 points, finishing behind sixth place Herndon (266) and ahead of eighth place West Potomac (320). Mountain View High of Stafford was the team champion.
Morales, in a field of 339 runners, led the Panthers with a 27th place finish. Potomac Falls’ other top runners included juniors Juan Campos (38th place) and Nick Mogensen (44th).
<b>NULL LOVES</b> the potential of his boys’ team.
“I think this year we’ll come together,” he said. “We won the Judges Classic.”
At that meet, held on Sept. 10 at the Kernstown Battlefield in Winchester, the Panthers won the 18-team varsity `A’ race with 91 points, besting second place Clarke County (109), third place Loudoun County (123) and fourth place John Handley (126), the event’s host school.
Morales finished fifth in that race, while Mogensen and junior Patrick Wilson were ninth and 13th, respectively. Other solid runs that day for the Panthers came from seniors Chris Johnson (31st place), Rennix Offutt (33rd) and Mike Volaric (36th), junior Connor Wilson (38th), sophomore Grant Deker and senior Dan Zimmerman (both 44th).
“We didn’t run particularly well there,” said Null, of the Judges Classic. “It was a tough course. But I could see there that we had potential [to be a good team].”
Two weeks later, on Sept. 16, at the renowned Oatlands Invitational meet in Leesburg, the Panther boys finished an impressive 12th overall (among 39 teams) in the varsity `A’ race. Oakton High of the Northern Region was the team champion in that race. Morales was 28th overall to lead the Panthers.
Null said several of his runners were competing in the varsity race for the first time at Oatlands, which is considered one of the highest competitive high school racing events in Virginia.
“That race was pretty tough for us,” said Null. “A lot of our guys were running in the JV races [at Oatlands] last year. For our first big meet, I don’t think we ran as well as we could have. We went out a little too slow. But overall it was a good showing.”
Null said his relatively youthful team has experienced a flux of emotions this fall.
“I think they’ve been excited about the season and at other times have been somewhat intimidated,” said the coach. “When you have to [race] in the limelight it’s somewhat different. We have to mature. These kids are hard workers and their relationship as a team is close.”
Morales and Johnson are team co-captains this season for the Panthers. Null believes the Panthers could be a dangerous team later this autumn in the postseason. But at the same time he wants to guard his excitement.
“I just hope my expectations aren’t too high,” he said. “We took a [graduation] hit. But I’ve got great kids.”