By Sean Taylor
On a steaming hot summer afternoon four years ago in the parking lot at Sugar Hollow Reservoir, three ninth graders—Joe Hawkes, Jack Eliason, Stuart Terrill, and one eighth grader, Joseph Taylor—met to run as a group for the first time. The fourth ninth grader, Will Bonner, they would meet at the first day of school. At that time, Western’s cross country coach Lindy Bain and assistant coach Cass Girvin didn’t realize that this group of boys would be the best cross country team ever from central Virginia.
Year after year, the “Boys of Crozet” trained and got faster, training 51 weeks out of the year for four straight years. Their sophomore year, Coach Bain was interviewed by Virginia Mile Split and asked about competing against the famous Loudoun Valley XC National Team. His response was “that is a long way away, we just need to keep getting better, stay healthy and you never know.”
They started the 2019 cross country season by setting the course record at the Ragged Mountain Cup, beating second-place Albemarle by more than a minute. The team consisted of Joe Hawkes, Jack Eliason, Will Bonner, and Thomas Kallen. Next, it was off to the Fork Union Invitational where the Boys of Crozet raced to another title, again beating second-place Albemarle by an average of 7 seconds per runner.
Off to Cary, North Carolina, for the Great American XC Invitational as the nation’s best teams assembled to compete on the N.C. State University course. The Boys of Crozet finished sixth overall with an average time of 15:43. While they throttled the local competition, including Albemarle by 246 points and 29 seconds per runner, they knew that they had to improve if they were going to make it to nationals. The highlight for the day was Jack Eliason and his breakout race, finishing fourth overall with a time of 15:05, instantaneously vaulting him to be a nationally recruited runner along with his teammate Joe Hawkes.
The season’s turning point came at the Albemarle Invitational as they finished in third place behind the defending national champions, Loudoun Valley, and one second behind Albemarle. This was a wake-up call and lit a fire in their bellies.
Over the next several weeks of practice, some very positive signs began to arise. Jack found another gear and Stuart, who fought injuries on and off for the past four years, really started to look and feel stronger. Freshman standout Owen Shifflett was running fast times and Joe Hawkes competed for every race title. Thomas Kellan solidified his place on the team with big improvements in his times and Will Bonner made the leap of faith, really believed in himself and competed at the highest level. Joseph Taylor, who earlier in the season dislocated his knee, began to strengthen and regain his place in this elite group of runners. The Boys of Crozet were back and hungry for more.
Winning districts and regionals, the Boys eyed a three-peat at the Virginia State Championships. At states, they ran the table with a perfect score of 15, finishing 1,2,3,4,5! Their first six runners all finished under 16:00 minutes, a first in the history for any central Virginia cross country team. This is practically unheard of in cross country scoring.
With confidence soaring, they were ready to qualify for Nike Nationals. They traveled back to Cary for the Southeast NXN Regional Championships, where only two teams would advance and be rewarded with a trip to Nike Headquarters to compete for the national championship. The weather was cold and rainy, just like they liked it!
At the meet, the announcers focused on defending national champs Loudoun Valley and regional powerhouses Severna and Wickham Park. The Boys of Crozet were not on the radar.
Bang! The gun went off as 297 runners shot off the starting line. Jack and Joe settled near the lead while Stuart and Will were in the middle of the pack at the 2K split. Joseph was nowhere to be found, back at 161st place at the 2K split. Then, like the Crozet engine that could, they went down the rail, rolling full steam ahead. Stuart, Will, and Joseph starting picking off runners one and two at a time, moving up and getting stronger with each kilometer. The announcers were concerned only with Loudoun Valley, Severna, and Wickham Park, giving the blow-by-blow updates of the team score throughout the course on the PA system. They didn’t see The Boys of Crozet picking off runners left and right. Coach Lindy and Cass yelled to their team, “Fast Hands, Go to the Arms,” “We need ’em ALL”. As the Nike announcer yelled, it was coming down to the two runners for Severna and Wickham Park and a long 600-meter climb to the finish. Just as he announced this, “The Boys of Crozet” fifth runner, Joseph Taylor, crossed the finish line, moving up an amazing 83 spots over the second half of the race, solidifying their second place finish in the Southeast Regions and a trip to nationals!
Next the team was off to Portland, Oregon, Nike World Headquarters, for NXN National XC Championships. Only the best in the country make it to Portland for this epic event. The Boys of Crozet were going to compete against the best national XC programs, some of which recruit runners nationally. Our town of 5,500 was competing against the best of the best. Most of the 29 teams were state champions. Littleton, Colorado, for example, had seven high school All-Americans.
The day of the race was horrific, 38 degrees and pouring freezing rain—just the way they liked it! The scene was a Nike marketing extravaganza; if there was a space, there was a swoosh. The teams were treated like royalty with Nike Swag, but the Boys of Crozet were there to race.
Out of cannon, the start began! NXN is known as the fastest first 400 meters in high school XC, and it didn’t disappoint as the first 400 meters was clocked faster than the fastest high school mile time at the 400. The soggy course had no firm footing. Again, Jack and Joe moved near the front as the leader from California would enjoy a day by himself. While they were forced to get out faster than at Regionals, Stuart, Will, Joseph, Thomas, and Owen were all back in the pack through the first 2k split, just as their engines were firing up and the Crozet Boys began to move up from 16th to 12th to 11th, passing the defending national champions Loudoun Valley. With 1.5K to go they were in seventh place and surging. Their last kilometer was their fastest as moved to fifth in the nation!
With their resolve and grit, The Boys of Crozet became the fifth fastest XC team in America. These boys will be forever linked, earning the title of the best cross country team ever from central Virginia.
Congratulations to Jack Eliason, Joe Hawkes, Stuart Terrill, Will Bonner, Joseph Taylor, Thomas Kallen, and Owen Shifflett for representing the best of Crozet!