With a front-running style of racing, West Springfield junior Mike Spooner has earned a reputation as one of the gutsiest cross-country runners in the area. By the two-mile mark of yesterday's 2.98-mile Virginia AAA Northern Region championship race at Burke Lake Park, Spooner had already built a huge lead and had shown decisively that he is also the region's best runner.

Spooner cruised to the boys' title in 15 minutes 2 seconds, well ahead of Herndon junior Ermin Mujezinovic (15:15). A week earlier on the same course at the Patriot District meet, Spooner won in 14:58; on Nov. 12 at the state championships meet in The Plains, Spooner will likely be among the favorites to win.

"The strategy today was to go out hard, keep grinding, keep pushing, and it paid off," Spooner said. "I love going out there and showing everyone that I have the guts to run that way. It just fits my personality. I love to do things all out."

While the boys' meet was decided early, the girls' championship came down to a matter of inches. In the end, Oakton All-Met senior Kayley Byrne edged Lake Braddock senior Erin Klein by a split second to win in 17:46.

A five-runner pack stayed at the front for most of the race before a final sprint came down to Byrne and Klein. Byrne said she felt her legs wobble near the finish line, but she mustered enough to win.

"I wanted it so bad," said Byrne, the regional runner-up a year ago. "I just told myself run as fast as you can, you're almost done."

The top four teams and 15 runners in each race earned spots in the state meet.

Led by Byrne and senior Matt Kroetch, who finished third in 15:17, Oakton became the first school to sweep the regional championship since West Springfield won both in 2001.

Oakton's girls had 61 points, well ahead of Fairfax's 88. Westfield was third with 119, and Robinson earned the final spot in the state meet by winning a tiebreaker against Lake Braddock. Both teams had 139 points, but Robinson's sixth runner finished 51st in the team standings, and Lake Braddock's was 53rd.

The Cougars' boys scored 58 points, barely edging Jefferson's 60 for the championship. Along with Kroetch, senior James Phillips finished fifth (15:24). Jefferson had won the previous three regional titles.

"It's always like this when we're going up against Jefferson, we have a lot of respect for them," Oakton Coach Phil Tiller said. "We've worked a long time to get to this day."

Newcomers Make Big Strides

Wilde Lake senior Travis Boccher and Severna Park freshman Kelsey Hill had never spent a day on a cross-country course before this year, yet both made up for lost time this fall.

Boccher joined the team because he enjoyed distance events during the track season last year. Hill showed up at practice last month only after the longtime swimmer was persuaded by Coach Ed Purpura, who was informed by her eighth-grade gym teacher that she could be a major force on the course.

Both Wilde Lake Coach Whitty Bass and Purpura smiled as they told these stories yesterday, after Boccher and Hill captured Maryland 3A East Region titles at Centennial.

Boccher finished in 17:29, as Wilde Lake runners took the first three places to win the team competition with 43 points, ahead of defending 3A champion River Hill (59), Centennial (109), Bel Air (130), Severna Park (147) and Mount Hebron (148).

"During track season, I thought I was getting pretty good at running," Boccher said. "But I never imagined it would be like this. I started running to stay in shape for baseball. I think I've played my last baseball game."

Hill -- competing in only her fifth event -- dominated the girls' race, finishing in 19:19, more than 30 seconds faster than second-place runner Katie Harman of River Hill (19:50.64).

"I liked running and I wanted to do more than just swimming, which I'd been doing since I was 5 years old," Hill said.

Hill led a pack of five Falcons who each finished in the top 10, as Severna Park won the team title with 30 points, ahead of River Hill (70), Bel Air (92), Mount Hebron (128), Centennial (131) and Wilde Lake (144).

The top six teams, as well as the top 21 boys and top 20 girls, advance to the state meet at Hereford High in Parkton on Nov. 12.

West Springfield's Mike Spooner cruises to the Virginia AAA Northern Region crown.