By Eric J. Wallace
This year’s Western Albemarle girls cross country team was “probably the best since the 90s, when the Western Albemarle High School team was nationally ranked” said Coach Kate Pugh. After winning the Conference 29 championship, the team took the runner-up slot at both the region and state meets, finishing behind Blacksburg High School, a powerhouse ranked in the national top 10. Pugh attributed success to the girls’ camaraderie, determination, and willingness to train hard throughout the preseason.
“We met three mornings a week at 7 a.m.—Monday, Wednesday and Saturday—all throughout the summer,” she said. “We’d get together on different roads across the county and put in a lot of solid mileage …. It was hard work and required a lot of dedication, but, in the end, the preparation paid off in a big way.”
In addition to the roadwork, in early August, the team’s top dozen girls traveled to Canaan Valley, West Virginia, for an intensive, weeklong cross country camp. The girls trained with a staff of some of the east coast’s best coaches, completing their first timed tempo-run of the season and tackling the grueling beast that is the Mountain Run—a notoriously long and hilly course known for bringing even the most seasoned of runners to their knees. However—and, as Pugh emphasized, most importantly—the camp gave the team with an opportunity to bond.
“We faced a big challenge early in the season involving an injury,” explained Pugh. “It was a hard blow, but the girls ultimately rose to the occasion and met the challenge accordingly.”
Western’s top runner, Zoe Clay, was diagnosed with a stress fracture. With their captain unexpectedly sidelined for six weeks, the team turned to their number-two, Averi Witt, to fill the void.
“Averi found herself unexpectedly leading the team and stepped into that leadership role commendably,” said Pugh. “Leading in her quiet, but strong manner, she ended the season by placing fourth in the state meet, recording the second-fastest time ever logged by a WAHS runner on the state course.”
Witt’s efforts were so exemplary that her teammates unanimously named her the season’s MVP.
Meanwhile, supporting team members stepped up their game as well: Number three-turned-two runner, Alyssa Santoro-Adajian, routinely bettered her times; Jenna Hill clocked a personal-best outing at the state tournament; and Emily Winder, Grace Rainey, Faith Reid, Caroline McGahren, and Claudia Giortz-Jorgensen worked hard, alternatingly fleshing out the team’s five, six, and seven slots.
Despite the injury, Clay was determined to stay in shape. “During that time, Zoe crossed-trained every day, usually twice daily, on the elliptical, stationary bike, and in the pool,” said Pugh. “Her determination to do what she could to help the team was just incredible…. She returned to compete in the final two races of the year”—the regional and state meets— “and came through in a big way, placing sixth in each.”
Overall, while the team will be losing Witt, Rainey, Reid, and Giortz-Jorgenson, with Clay, Hill, and other important runners returning, Pugh said the team’s 2017 prospects are strong.
“I’m just so proud of what these girls accomplished this year,” she said. “And, from where we stand right now, I think next year is looking extremely bright.”