After narrowly failing to qualify for last year's state championship, Park View's boys cross country team entered this season with a senior dominated squad and high expectations. And, despite a midseason tragedy, the Patriots seem poised for a run at the state meet.

"Our goal this year is {to qualify for} states," said fifth-year head coach Dave Hembach. "{The team} remembers going to the state meet two years ago and they want to go back."

Led by seniors Jason Dunn and Mike Schuster, the Patriots have been outstanding in the major meets. They easily won the NOVA Invitational which featured the four Loudoun County schools, then finished second in the "B" division at the University of Virginia Invitational. At William & Mary, Park View was runnerup in a 22-team field and the Patriots are currently ranked second in the state in Group AA by a regional track publication.

With five seniors in the top six runners, Hembach admits there is no mystery to the Patriots success.

"There's no secret. Out of my top six runners, five are seniors so these kids have been running for four years and it really helps," said Hembach. "They're hard workers and they know how to train. They really work hard in practice."

Actually the Patriots' work began in the summer when most of the team attended a cross country camp in Madison, Va. which was run by college cross country coaches and featured lectures and training tips from established runners.

"It helped a lot. There were a lot of hills to run and it built a strong base because we got a lot of miles in," Schuster said. "When you're at camp it gives you more motivation to run."

Behind Dunn and Schuster, seniors Greg McElvey and Mike Miller have consistently been the Patriots third and fourth-place finishers. Sophomore Jeremy Pike has been a pleasant surprise and Kevin Smith, another senior, will hope for a strong post-season performance.

"What you'd like to have is to get five runners within a minute {of each other}. I have four and the others are close," Hembach said. "Take, for example, at the UVa. meet. There were 219 runners, but my top four were 13th, 14th, 30 and 34th. I think that's what we can do if we get to states."

But getting to states may be more difficult than the state meet itself. Five of the top Group AA teams in the state, including Northwestern District rivals Broad Run and Handley, are in the Patriots' region and only the top four teams will advance to the state meet.

"Our chances are real good but the district is going to be tough -- the toughest since I've been here," said Hembach, whose team won the district two years ago and finished ninth in the state meet. "Broad Run and Handley are real good plus there are some good runners at the other schools {who will affect the scores}."

Handley will host the district meet October 26 and Dunn and Schuster are expected to run near the front of the field. Dunn, who transferred to Park View from Cleveland last winter, tied the school record in the mile last spring with a 4:28.01. He posted a cross-country personal best at the William & Mary meet clocking a 17:17 for the 3.1 mile course.

"He's actually a better miler. But he's a kid who has a lot of natural ability plus he works real hard. He lifts and trains properly," said Hembach. "He takes care of his body and he really knows what he's doing."

While Dunn is the tactician, Schuster is the aggressor.

"Mike is funny. He just goes out and runs as fast as he can and tries to maintain. The important part of his race is his start," said Hembach. "If he gets out with the top {runners} at the mile, he doesn't fade."

But for Schuster a senior season of triumph was marred by tragedy. As the Patriots were about to receive their second-place plaque following the UVA. meet, Schuster's father was felled with a heart attack. Despite efforts by on-sight paramedics, the attack proved fatal.

Much of the team attended the memorial service and the runners have rallied around Schuster as he rejoined the team after a week's absence. "I think it brought a couple of us closer together," said Dunn. "The seniors have done a lot for Mike and helped him out a lot."

And Schuster has returned with several strong performances, driven by a new inspiration. "It seems like I do better because I'm more motivated," he said. "{My dad} was great. He'd come to every race and cheer us on and yell at us."

Last season the Patriots' fifth-place regional finish left them one spot away from the state meet. With Chancellor and Western Albermarle joining the three tough Northwestern District teams at the regional meet at Handley Nov. 2, the challenge is there for the Patriots.

"Those are the five good teams that I know in the region. And one of them can't make it," said Hembach. "We were fifth last year and we don't want to miss it again."