For McLean, the path to what happened Saturday afternoon on the Occoquan River began with a line in the sand.

At last year’s postseason picnic, Coach Nathan McClafferty instructed his team to form a circle around him. He grabbed a stick, drew a line and offered a challenge: “Guys, I want to cross the line into first place,” he said. 

The Highlanders did just that at the Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association state championship, taking first in the boys’ first varsity eight in 4 minutes 28.9 seconds to squeeze past Woodbridge (4:29.5). Jefferson (4:33.2), Oakton (4:33.7), Washington-Lee (4:34.0) and Yorktown (4:37.8) rounded out the championship heat.

McLean’s rise to the top was swift. Before last season, the program didn’t have the participation numbers to race eight-seated boats, having stuck with fours for nearly a decade. The Highlanders’ first varsity eight boat took second at last year’s state championship — behind St. Albans, which has moved to the Washington Metro Interscholastic Rowing Association.

McClafferty made it clear that second was not good enough, though, and he scheduled a rigorous regular season slate, pitting the Highlanders against fast boats like St. Albans and Whitman. McLean knew its biggest test Saturday would be Woodbridge, even though it hadn’t seen the Vikings all season.

Then the race started, and Woodbridge took an early lead.

“They had a hell of a start. They jumped four seats easy,” McLean junior Mason Duncan said.

The Highlanders soon edged ahead and, despite a late push from Woodbridge, hung on for the win.

“When you get second and St. Albans has really been running the show for the past number of years, it’s kind of like dangling that carrot in front of you. We wanted to capture that carrot,” McClafferty said.

The T.C. Williams girls’ varsity eight can relate. After winning back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015, the Titans couldn’t get past National Cathedral the past two seasons. But, like St. Albans, National Cathedral has since left for WMIRA. 

About halfway through Saturday’s final, T.C. Williams coxswain Paula Fillios realized her boat had a comfortable lead, so she shouted some final words of encouragement to her teammates.

“Secure that gold medal — right here!” she said.

The Titans won in 5:12.8, comfortably ahead of Washington-Lee (5:20.7). Georgetown Visitation (5:24.3), Woodbridge (5:25.6), McLean (5:28.0) and Lake Braddock (5:28.3) rounded out the field. 

“It felt really good because I know there’s three or four seniors on this boat that have been waiting since eighth grade; they just kept getting second and second and second,” Fillios said.

In other races, the T.C. Williams boys’ varsity four took first place in 5:03.2. In the girls’ varsity four, Langley was victorious in 5:38.9. Wakefield (4:40.7) won the boys’ lightweight varsity eight, and Yorktown (5:20.7) prevailed in the girls’ lightweight varsity eight.