The secret, says successful Lake Braddock cross country coach Andy Tysinger, is making everybody feel special. Sound like a slick line from a p.r. man? Maybe, but it's something Tysinger, the winningest running coach in the Washington area, sincerely believes.
And, more importantly, it works.
"Never neglect the base to coach the top," he said last week at a dual meet in which he held out his top 15 runners. That left 26 Bruins who lined up. "It permeates anything you do, in newspapers, for instance, you have to do the background work, you have to do your research. It's the same in teaching.
"But it's amazing how many coaches forget that. They get so excited about their good runners, they forget about the younger runners."
A frail, leggy freshman passed Tysinger at the two mile mark of the three mile race. She was obviously struggling and was not particularly distinctive, coming through in about 30th place.
"She's kind of weak, kind of sickly looking, but I can't lose this kid, look at those legs," he said. "Three years from now she may run like the wind but so often kids like her get discouraged because the coach doesn't think they'll amount to anything. You flat out can't give up."
Most of the runners who have competed for Tysinger and boys coach Marshall Windsor started out on similarly indistinguishable terms.
Senior Kim Desmond, the Bruins' number one runner, has worked her way to the top from an 80th-place finish in the Northern Region Athletic Director's Meet her freshman year.
"When I saw my first Lake Braddock team, except for Kristi (Cassell) I said, 'oh my god, this is going to be a long year,'" said Tysinger. "But slowly but surely things started to gel."
He added, looking at his watch after about the 20th runner crossed the finish line at 22:30, that a time like that would have qualified a girl for the varsity squad in his first season. Yet that first team four years ago, when Tysinger and Windsor left Fort Hunt to rebuild the program at Lake Braddock, finished runner-up at the state meet that year.
Junior Tara Bowman, took over at the Pallotti Invitational when Desmond was out with an illness and finished second to Northern Virginia leader Anne Evans of South Lakes. Senior Kev Ryan is in the third position, sophomore Brooke Pietrzak is fourth and senior Cindy Paseur is fifth, the final position to count in scoring in high school cross country. Three of them were not running varsity last year.
"This year nobody's going to win a meet (individually), but who cares?," said Tysinger. "We're more concerned with how the team will do. That's always been our thrust. These girls take it to heart that they have to run as a team to do well. There's a lot of pride in that."
Both the boys and girls teams are expected to contend for the state AAA title on the Piedmont course in Charlottesville in November. If successful, it would be the girls third and the boys first.
Senior Vince Hancock paces the boys. Behind him are seniors Brad Baker, Sean Bernabe, David Smith, junior James Volpe and senior Jason Lanman and junior Jeff Bernabe.
Last year's boys team experienced success early then let up. "This year's team knew it would be in the running and learned from the lesson last year," said Windsor. "Besides, Woodbridge wouldn't let us do that again."
Throughout the dual-meet race that day, as the sun began to cast long shadows over the course, Tysinger told a little anecdote about each one of the 26 non-varsity runners as they passed. None of the stories had really anything to do with their talents as runners because none of them were particularly talented when compared to the top runners in the area. That time of 22:30, for instance, averages to just under eight minutes per mile for three miles. By comparison, in winning at the University of Virginia Invitational, Evans ran 18:34 on a wet, sloppy, demandingly-hilly course. But, of course, that wasn't the point of his tales.
One girl had been afraid to join the team before her senior year, saying she couldn't be competitive. She won the race that day. Some were painfully shy students before running allowed them to express themselves in a way they otherwise would not have. A few were gangly, awkward freshman.
"It's very important to coach all the kids and that's sort of selfish on my part," he said. "Because eventually some of them will turn into very good runners, it just takes time. I had one girl who was running 33-35 minutes at the beginning of the season last year, which by our standards, is slow. By the end she was doing 27. That really makes you feel good.
"Success helps of course. By virtue of the fact that I've had success, it helps but it also creates problems. Some kids won't come out, assuming that anybody who runs for us has to be great. And you see today, that's not the case. If I had 50 girls and not one a top seven runner, it would make me happy."
Lake Braddock has always carried large teams, in some cases, four times as many runners as the teams they compete against. This year the number is slightly down, at 100 for both boys and girls. Last year it was about 120. One year it was 150.
A common complaint among cross country coaches, is that since their sport is not one of the major revenue-producing sports and since there are so many activities available to high school students today, they don't get the athletes. Tysinger, a football coach before he took over the sprinters at Fort Hunt 12 years ago, says he adopts a football mentality.
"You have to sell the kids that it's a major sport, not a minor one, that it's important," he said. "If you're really faithful to the sport in what you give to it, you'll get a lot back. Everybody thinks we open our doors and hundreds of kids walk in, but even at Lake Braddock, you have to work to sell it.
"You have to be able to offer something to them other than the money incentive they can get at a job, that they can do something for themselves."
Each summer Tysinger and his staff mails letters describing the program to every member of the student body.
"If I had been at any other school, I probably would not have joined the team, they send letters out and I came out because I got one," said Desmond, 17. As a freshman, Desmond fit the profile of the typical Lake Braddock runner, someone who has never run before.
She was 16th in the state that year, 21st her sophomore year after battling a knee injury and 11th as a junior.
Then, last spring, a critical combination of a persistent illness, a desire to continue training and the pressures of maintaining a high grade point average had the expected disastrous effect on Desmond. She missed most of the outdoor season. This year she says she has something to prove to everyone who "crossed me off the list. I learned a lot last spring, that you have to keep things in perspective. But it's important for a person to find something they're good at. And running's definitely helped me, I just don't know how to say it."
The back end of the pack passed Tysinger with about a mile remaining. He pointed to a girl, a senior. He said, "now why does a kid like that do this, getting buried in a dual meet? It's something intangible, something she can't get in any other activity kids are involved in today. You're doing something on your own, working your body. Most of them see a value in doing things they've never done before."
Tysinger said that, while the individuals change each year, the fundamental make-up of his teams vary little year to year. Every once in a while there will be the stars, the Linda Portasik, the Andrea Volpe, the Wendy Neely, all nationally prominent runners under Tysinger. But most of them are like Kim Wallace, a senior running in the dual meet that day, somewhere in the middle of the pack, for whom cross country has offered an identity that comes only from exceeding one's perceived limitations.
"She's made a tremendous step coming out as a senior, can you imagine what kind of courage it takes for someone like her to begin a sport her senior year?" said Tysinger. "She was the shyest, quietest person. She never talked, I had her in class. Now, her legs are killing her and she's out here running. Who would take time to work with a Kim Wallace? She gets no special treatment, she does the same as everybody else, there are the same expectations.
"She's an example of what it's all about."