Had it not been for a chance meeting in the basement of the Winchester Custom Cabinet shop between Handley High School cross country Coach Pete Lowe and Jason Morgan, the junior distance runner may never have developed into the fastest high school cross country runner in Virginia.
For Morgan, the outcome has earned him a state AA half-mile title, a top 10 finish in last year's state meet and the role as the runner to beat in Saturday's prestigious Georgetown Prep Classic.
As it happened, Lowe had first seen Morgan running a time trial on Handley's track with his eighth-grade track team. Lowe figured Morgan was running only a half mile, because Morgan had sped around the track twice in 2 minutes 20 seconds, a superb time for an eighth-grader. Much to Lowe's surprise, Morgan continued to run to a 4:50 mile.
Lowe was thrilled with the prospect of having Morgan run on the Handley track team the next year, but he found out from another coach that day that Morgan would play football instead.
Morgan worked the summer before his freshman year with the CETA program in his hometown, Winchester, and worked some part-time summer jobs. Morgan wanted to play football in the fall of 1982, but he didn't want to quit his job two weeks before school to practice with the team.
In the meantime, Lowe was appointed temporary cross country coach after the previous coach had died earlier that summer. With one week remaining before school and hardly enough runners for a team, Lowe heard that Morgan wasn't playing football. Lowe couldn't contact Morgan because his phone number was unlisted.
"So I went to look for him," said Lowe, a running coach at Handley for 15 years. "I knew what area of town he would be living in, so I went into that area of town and just drove for hours. I thought I'd see him on the street or on a basketball court."
Lowe returned home later that night without locating Morgan. The next day, however, when he took a table to the Winchester Custom Cabinet shop for repair, he found Morgan digging out the shop owner's basement. Lowe immediately urged Morgan to run cross country, and Morgan agreed.
"He (Lowe) asked me if I was interested in running," said Morgan, whose 5-foot-10, 160-pound frame is considered stocky as far as distance runners are concerned. "I said I'd try. I didn't want to go out, but it was something to do."
"He's not even close to being the mold of an average runner," Lowe stated. "He's really reserved and he usually answers with a yes or no. I've known him for three years and he still answers with just an 'uh huh.' Most runners with his talent would be concerned about doing the right things, going to sleep early, eating the right food. Instead, he rides his dirt bike and plays basketball. But I think it's better for him. It keeps him relaxed.
"We don't sit down and talk about strategy. We don't even talk about racing before a race. It's just not your typical strategy for coaching a runner, but it works with Jason."
The first time Lowe ran with Morgan before the beginning of the 1982 cross country season, Lowe knew his recruit was talented. "He practiced for a week," said Lowe, "then he ran a five-mile race on the C&O Canal. I didn't want him to run the whole race; I wanted him to run just three miles. But he kept on running to the finish with a time of 28 minutes. I knew I had a winner. Then he won his first cross country meet ever, a dual meet a couple of weeks later."
Since then, Morgan has evolved into a distance runner with a devastating kick. With the speed of a 1:52 half-miler, Morgan this season has outsprinted the leaders in the late stages of a race to win the Handley Judges, George Mason and University of Virginia invitationals. Last year, he won the Northwestern District and AA Region II cross country championship and he placed fifth in the Virginia AA meet, making him one of the fastest returning boys in the state.
More impressive is that Morgan has been competing all season with patella tendinitis, a painful knee ailment that has cut his distance training from 60 miles a week to 25.
Since Morgan was held back in fourth grade, he will have exhausted his high school eligibility at the end of the outdoor track season because Virginia rules state that he cannot run after his 19th birthday. But Lowe is exploring ways he can train and run in open meets. Annapolis has outscored its opponents, 113-25, and may be developing into Coach Al Laramore's first state-championship-caliber team since the Panthers won the Class AA title in 1978.