There was no fanfare or pump-up music, just the light patter of rain hitting asphalt as the nation's top-ranked boys' cross-country team made its way across the Loudoun Valley High School parking lot.
The top eight boys completed their warm-up and set out on a five-mile pace run on the Washington and Old Dominion Trail. They arrived back at the starting point between 26 and 28 minutes later, one after the other, with flecks of mud and fragments of dead leaves plastered to their backs.
They moved on to a pair of uphill 400-meter runs. Afterward, they begged their coaches to run one more. In a sport that is all grit with little accompanying glamour, Loudoun Valley's top eight boys were in their element during a bleary Wednesday afternoon practice.
Their dedication, combined with a mixture of talent, culture and good fortune, has enabled Loudoun Valley and the small town of Purcellville to assemble a cross-country team ranked first in one national poll and second in another, just two years after graduating one of the most decorated prep runners of all time.
After a dominant performance at the regional meet, the Vikings are heavy favorites to win their third consecutive 4A boys' state championship Friday before gearing up for a run at a Nike Cross Nationals title.
Reigning state champion Peter Morris, who witnessed the media attention showered on former classmate Drew Hunter as he shattered records that included Alan Webb's national indoor mile record, has noticed one key difference in the current wave of attention.
"The pressure is spread out over the whole team," Morris said. "We all have to do our own part to make us who we are."
The Vikings were already shaping up to be one of the nation's top teams at the close of last season, which ended in their second consecutive 4A boys state championship. All seven of its top runners, including Morris, the individual state champion, Colton Bogucki (fourth at the state meet) and Jacob Hunter (sixth) would be returning in the fall.
Then, in December, the team got an unexpected boost when Hunter received a text message from Sam Affolder, a standout sophomore at Carlisle High in Pennsylvania with a 15-minute 17-second 5K and a 4:08.67 1,600 to his name.
"We were at a meet down in Norfolk, an indoor track meet," Coach Marc Hunter said. "Jacob comes up to me and said, 'Dad, look at this from Sam Affolder, he says he's coming to Loudoun Valley.' I looked at it, thought about it and said, 'Jacob, somebody got a hold of Sam's phone and is pulling a prank.'"
It wasn't a prank. Affolder's father had accepted an assignment at the Pentagon, and the family would be moving to Virginia. After narrowing the decision down to a few area schools based on commute time to the Pentagon, quality of education and running programs, the family left it up to Affolder.
"Really, the only place on my mind was Loudoun Valley," said Affolder, who hopes to become the 11th high school student to run the mile in under four minutes. "I was mainly choosing the coaches."
Affolder knew that the Hunters had experience coaching a runner under four minutes in the mile. Their eldest son Drew, who graduated in 2016 before turning professional with Adidas, became the ninth high school runner to break the barrier. His success in track and cross-country led to a boom in popularity in Loudoun Valley running sports.
There were 48 total runners — both boys and girls — on the cross-country team when Marc and Joan Hunter stepped in as coaches in 2014, when Drew was a sophomore soon to become a running superstar. Its roster now stands at a total of 124, nearly 10 percent of the school, partly because of what coaches and the team's veteran runners refer to as the "Drew Hunter Effect."
When Hunter broke the high school indoor mile record with a time of 3:58.25 just one week after setting the 3K record (7:59.33), a new level of hysteria was reached.
"Somebody told me that during that period, he was the most famous track and field athlete in the world, and I think that's true," Marc Hunter said.
The strength of this current Vikings team is in its depth. According to MileStat.com, no team from the state of Virginia had ever put seven members under 16 minutes in the 5K during a single season. The Vikings accomplished the feat in a single meet, with its top seven runners breaking 16 minutes at the Loudoun County championship in September.
Despite the hype around Loudoun Valley in the running community, the cross-country team still takes a back seat to the more popular sports within the halls of the Purcellville school.
"I think the big sports at pretty much every high school are basketball and football," Jacob Hunter said. "Cross-country, it's just like, 'who would do running as a sport? No one really cares about that.' They don't think it's fun to watch."
But when the Vikings don their gold and green singlets at meets both inside and outside their home state, they hear murmurs of recognition all around them.
"Everyone's like, 'Oh, there's Valley,' " Morris described. "'That's who we're going to beat, or who we want to beat, or who we aim to stick with.'"