By Jennifer A. Sheffield
Western Albemarle High School’s (WAHS) cross-country and track and field programs have produced standout student athletes before, but the 2021-22 season’s front-runners Owen Shifflett, 16, and Sadie Adams, 14, said their first and second-place individual finishes at the Nike Cross Regionals Southeast (NXR) meet were one team effort.
This year’s NXR was held November 27 in Cary, North Carolina, and replaced the excitement of the Nike Cross Nationals (NXN), which has not been held since 2019, when Shifflett (now a junior) raced in Portland, Oregon, alongside WAHS’s top seniors.
Since then, Shifflett has overcome anemia and trained despite Covid-related countywide school closures that forced the teams to pivot to a club structure. “It’s been rocky, but a fun journey,” he said.
That journey began by missing the regional championship meet last spring, but Shifflett was cleared to run in the Virginia High School League (VHSL) C3 race, where he captured his first state championship with a time of 16:03 seconds on the Glenhill Park course in Roanoke County. His disappointing seventh-place finish at the Class 4 state championship in November—a race he led up to its biggest hill at the 2¼ mile mark—made winning by breaking his personal record (PR) by 34 seconds (15:10) at NXR even sweeter.
“I had to find my racing style,” said Shifflett. “I was steady at the beginning of the year, but not what I wanted. It has came together.”
Western runners also have a legacy of coaching to count on. Coach Lindy Bain coached Owen’s father, Marty, but Owen did not start running competitively until he entered eighth grade.
His mother, Laura said this was because Mark Lorenzoni of Ragged Mountain Running Shop in Charlottesville saw him power through the Virginia Discovery Museum’s four-mile dash when he was eight years old and advised him to wait until his physical development was more advanced.
Bain, who was named 2020-2021 Central Virginia Coach of the Year, is also careful about putting pressure on Shifflett. He admitted, “Going into the season I didn’t see him running in our top seven, and gosh, he just kept coming on.”
WAHS assistant coach Cass Girvin said that in a more normal season, Shifflett probably would have finished top five, but not necessarily won at NXR with his time. Charlie Hurt also coaches with Girvin and earned a race bib for the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon trials. About Shifflett, he said, “He’s been ready to take that step, and he is more comfortable making the bigger moves, but one day does not define everything in running.”
A big change for WAHS runners was a classification bump, too, from Class 3 to Class 4, by far the most competitive class in Virginia in cross-country for boys. Their win in the VHSL Class 4 state championships, was also the school’s fourth straight.
On the girls team, Adams currently holds the title of fastest, female freshman 5K cross-country runner in Virginia since joining WAHS from Henley Middle School, where she was putting up varsity times as an eighth grader, but that didn’t count in the scoring. Her NXR performance, a third-place finish at states, plus earning a top-five finish at VHSL led to all-state honors.
“I have become a strong runner because of the WAHS team,” she said. “My goal going into NXR was to run my race and have fun.” She ran the 3.1-mile course in just 18:06. “It wasn’t my PR (17:50), but it was my favorite race I’ve ever been a part of,” she said.
Head coach Katie Pugh said, “I don’t want to say it was a surprise, but it was. This is the smallest team we’ve ever had with 13 girls. Our competitors have 40, and 50 athletes. This team is special, and part of Sadie’s success is that there is someone right behind her, to keep her going.”
Freshman Henry Kimbrough said the same thing about Shifflett. “He’s a great motivator and is always hyping us up. He definitely brings the team together, with a level of calmness and readiness towards racing.”
“It’s awesome to see him continuing our program,” said Shifflett’s 2019 NXN teammate, Jack Eliason. “He is the right guy to do that, because he is one of the most positive and enthusiastic people to be around. He’s accountable and responsible for everyone on the team, and I know he’s going to continue to do that in his senior year for Western.”
WAHS’s indoor track season got started with a December meet at the Virginia Military Institute, and racing resumes this month. Bain said Shifflett is not yet the fastest-ever WAHS runner—that is still 2016 graduate Gannon Willcutts (14:59), but it would be fun to test him again on the national stage.