After Woodbridge's boys finished second in the Virginia AAA state cross country meet last year and the girls took fifth, the state meet this year "was built up as a dual meet between Woodbridge and Lake Braddock" for both squads, said Vikings coach Dave Davis in his second season at Woodbridge.
He continued, "there's a possibility of first for both (boys and girls) but we knew (Lake Braddock coaches) Marshall (Windsor) and Andy (Tysinger) will be tough to beat. It was a valid assessment, though, at least up until UVA."
Things had been going according to plan until two weeks ago in Charlottesville at the University of Virginia Invitational. There Woodbridge and Lake Braddock met for the first time this season in a big-meet situation. It was also near mid-season, meaning assessment of their relative strengths and weaknesses would remain accurate through the state meet. UVA would serve as a legitimate forecaster of the state meet in November and both teams knew it.
"The girls, especially, are feeling a lot of pressure to beat Lake Braddock," said Davis. "It's the first chance anybody's had to get close to Andy, except Langley a few years ago."
Following Lake Braddock senior Vince Hancock's second place finish behind Denbeigh's John Massie, the Bruins put three finishers in the top 15, scoring a substantial victory with 64 points. Woodbridge's top man, senior Curtis Grundler had a poor showing, finishing 24th and the team effort was led by second-man Chip Pace in 10th. The Vikings totalled 104 for second.
The girls did not fare much better. Woodbridge's Michelle Farmer was an encouraging fourth but the rest of the five scorers did little to match up with Lake Braddock. The Bruins took 7-11-13-15 and won with 68 points. Woodbridge was second with 104.
"I have to stay up with Braddock's top four girls, right now I'm number four on the team," said senior Jenna Peterson, 17. "But at UVA I was 10 seconds behind their number five girl and we have to make up the difference."
Part of the reason for the Woodbridge's anticlimatic showing against their chief obstacle to state titles is an unusually high incidence of injuries and illnesses. Grundler, who beat Massie at the Penn State Invitational and won James Wood and the Marion Invitational, is plagued with asthma.
"That's no excuse," said Davis, 34, "but if he has a bad day, it really wears him out. He's one of the best in the state when he runs well, as good as Massey and Hancock."
Junior Terry Weir, who was originally slated for the second spot, has been out virtually the entire season with an illness.
Neither Farmer nor second girl Megan Grundler, a sophomore, had a spot among the top seven varsity members last year but have been forced into leadership positions because of lack of consistency among the rest of the team. Junior Therese Langley, who was fifth last year in the outdoor state mile, the first underclassmen, showed much promise but has been unable to follow through due to recuring injuries.
"She's put us a little in a tailspin," said Davis. "I thought she'd be number one coming in, but she was hurt at camp and then compensated for the knee injury and injured her hip. So now, she doesn't have the turnover strenths she should have. When she's healthy we'll be a much better girls team."
In addition, the high expectations created intense competitiveness among the 20 girls for the seven varsity positions, resulting in friction that would inhibit any attempt at team unity.
"One coach at UVA said he had the same problem and he locked his first seven in a classroom and told them to work it out," said Davis. "I took them aside and blasted them and told them I'd take all the freshman. It worked."
The friction subsided as teammates accepted their roles, which have varied to some degree each week. Some of the girls are still discovering latent abilities. But throughout it all, through the backbiting and animosity, through the untimely injuries and illnesses that look to dash pre-season hopes, the Woodbridge squads have demonstrated resiliency and ultimate faith in their abilities.
"Last year I really started thinking that I wanted to win this year," said Grundler, 17, who was 11th in the state last year, four places behind Hancock. "I was the second junior in the race and I didn't have a particularly good race that day."
He ran second man last year behind Danny Ireland and this year is taking his leadership responsibilities seriously. "A lot of times I have to make sure that everybody's not goofing off too much, I have to make sure we stay serious. As far as the team's chances, I think we can win it. Right now we've been running a lot of miles, putting in 85 a week the past month and a half. We're building up our strength and we're tired now. So our racing isn't quite where it will be at the state."
Said Peterson, "I still think we have a really good chance and we're going to give it everything we have. We're really excited about it. We have a really strong top nine and we've been pushing each other, everybody wants to stay in the top seven. To make up the difference at UVA we have to keep up the level of intensity. It's been tough but if we keep together and hopefully we'll make it."