Writing off the cross country season for the University of Virginia women seemed logical after an injury sidelined all-America Margaret Groos, whose sterling performances the last couple of years had bolstered the Cavaliers' claim to national attention.
Groos, a senior from Tennessee who ran second in the AIAW nationals last year to contribute to Virginia's sixth-place finish, suffered a stress fracture in her foot before the season began. With a healthy Groos, the Cavaliers were rated among the top 10 in the nation in the preseason.
Thus, the success of Virginia's young squad, running in the AIAW nationals in Seattle today, defies logic; it may even defy the estimation of the team's coaches. The Cavaliers are on the brink of "a remarkable ending to a very satisfying season," said the team's young mentor, Martin Smith, a first-year assistant coach.
The native Alexandrian, who coached one year at George Mason University before joining the Virginia staff, admits surprise "with our women's ability to run competitively against the really top cross country teams, the ones that are talented, older and more experienced and aren't adjusting to a new coach and a new training system.
"This team has had to make adjustments, especially to losing someone like Margaret Groos, who we've counted on for so long. Now, if we can finish 10th, (in the nationals today), then this team will have truly surpassed most expectations.
"Talent hasn't been a factor in our success. Without Margaret, we don't have the star that other teams have. What we do have is exceptional personality.
"This team has developed its own personality out of an exceptional togetherness. They have done what they had to do to improve, working hard and striving to overcome obstacles. Any success in Seattle will be a tribute to a young team that has been equal to some formidable challenges."
The team earned the last berth in the nationals by finishing third in a regional qualifying meet.
Any success will depend on the ability of sophomore Aileen O'Connor, an all-America after placing 11th in last year's nationals, to penetrate the frontrunners, allowing the rest of the team to run together just off her lead.
O'Connor, a former High Point star, has assumed the leadership role for the Cavaliers in the absence of Groos.In the regional qualifying meet, she finished fourth, just behind North Carolina State's Julie and Mary Shea and Betty Springs, the threesome expected to pace the Wolfpack to a second straight national championship.
But another pair of local sophomores, Bowie's Jill Haworth and Woodbridge's Val Hardin, together with the freshman duo of Mary Jean Wright from Pennsylvania, have finished close to O'Connor all season.
"Running our own individual races; that's the key for us," said Haworth, who finished ninth, one spot behind Wright, in the regionals. "I think we all might have been surprised earlier by our success without Margaret, but now, we're always looking to improve together as a team."
"I'm not surprised," said Wright, "and won't be because of the hard work we've put in and the way this team has stayed together through everything. That was the reason I decided to come here in the first place, the togetherness I saw, and now it's our strength."