By Tommy Keeler Jr. - email@example.com
WINCHESTER -- Crystal Nelson knew at an early age that she had the ability to be a pretty good runner.
The competitive Millbrook junior raced against some boys when she was in elementary school and made quite the impression.
"We had to run a mile in P.E. and the guys were like, 'You can't beat me' and I was like, 'Sure I can,'" Nelson said with a smile. "I beat them and then after the race they were like, 'Oh my gosh, you're pretty fast.'"
Years later, Nelson is still garnering attention as she shines on cross-country courses.
As a freshman, Nelson surprised herself by becoming the Pioneers' third-best runner and advancing to the state tournament for the first time.
She learned a lot from Tammy Cheung, who graduated in June and is attending Virginia Military Institute this fall. Nelson and Cheung had a special bond, which helped both of them put up impressive numbers last season.
Cheung finished seventh at the Group AA state meet last season, while Nelson finished 10th.
Nelson said it was a little strange not having Cheung on the team this season. However, Nelson has a new runner who will challenge her for the top spot -- senior Presley Parkes. The 2007 Northern Virginia Daily Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year has been out the last two years due to an injury.
"It's nice having Presley back on the team," Nelson said. "We ran together when I was in seventh grade. It's nice to have someone else help the younger girls out. I'm happy she's back. It's like having another Tammy."
Nelson attended the Down Under Sports Camp in Australia in late June and early July. The camp, which is by invitation only, is for many different sports and age groups. It lasted a week-and-a-half.
Nelson said she had a great time in Australia and would love to go back. One of the best parts for her was getting a chance to meet runners from other countries and making new friends.
"It was just a really cool experience," Nelson said. "They had Aborigine dances and everybody was taking pictures. They taught us some of the dances, too, and we got to try it. It was a lot of fun."
Nelson also had a big achievement in Australia -- a new personal record. She ran an 18:36, more than 30 seconds faster than her previous PR.
With the combination of Nelson, Parkes and Karly Knechtel, the Pioneers should be a factor in the Northwestern District this year, despite only having seven runners on the squad.
First-year coach Kevin Shirk said he's been very happy with what he's seen so far.
"I think the girls that we have are working extremely hard," Shirk said. "Even though we only have seven, we still have a talented group of girls."
Coach: Melissa Wright
Last year: Central finished seventh in Region B meet
Key returners: Carrie Heishman, Taylor Pumphrey, Katie Ritenour, Michelle Selwyn, LaTisha Souza
Key losses: Amber Hawkins, Taylor Laurer
Key newcomers: Kaitlin Kline, Heather Landes
Outlook: The Falcons return most of their lineup from last season. With a more experienced squad, Wright is excited about her team's potential in a very tough Shenandoah District.
"They've put in a lot of time over the summer and I think that will pay dividends," Wright said. "This group works very hard, and they are a lot of fun to be around."
Coach: Chuck Bowles
Last year: Finished fourth in the Group A state meet
Key returners: Allie Kuehm, Kelly Lee, Becky York
Key losses: Maddie McKelway
Key newcomers: Rachel Trayer
Outlook: With the bulk of their team returning from last season, the Eagles should be primed to make it back to states again. The toughest part will be making it out of their loaded district. Last year George Mason won the state title, with Strasburg in second.
"I think the girls are doing a good job of motivating each other," Bowles said. "We have a lot of new girls. Things are going really well so far ... looking forward to the season."
Coach: Emily Putt
Last year: Finished seventh in the Region II meet
Key returners: Hannah Bacon, Courtney Feathers, Cindy Quarles, Amy Youmans, Yi Yang Wang
Key losses: Claire Bridgeforth, Britani Myers
Key newcomers: Ashton Peranius, Eillen Wilkerson, Scarlett Hutchins
Outlook: Despite the loss of Myers, who elected to join the cheerleading squad this fall, the Judges should be a factor in the Northwestern District. They return five of their top seven runners. Quarles, who finished 17th in the region last year, will be expected to lead the way.
"I think Cindy will be a good leader for us," Putt said. "I think we have a lot of potential. We have a nice mix. We have experience, but we have youth as well."
Coach: Mike Onda
Last year: Finished fourth in the Northwestern District meet
Key returners: Erin Gardner, Samantha Ratcliffe, Lakelyn Wiley, Kylie Wince
Key losses: Lauryl Andrus, Rachel Carson, Whitney Dennis, Brooke Krossman
Key newcomers: Molly Farinholt, Amber Hawkins
Outlook: The talented Hawkins, who transferred from Central, will help the Colonels. However, she can't run in a meet until Oct. 12 due to the transfer eligibility rule. Despite losing some strong runners, the Colonels are very optimistic about the season.
"The girls are working hard," Onda said. "I think we have a chance to be good. We have high hopes for the season."
Coach: Tim Ritter
Last year: Finished 11th in the Region II meet
Key returners: Krista DeCeault, Erin Dougherty, Nell Garver, Emily Marchessault, Shelby Spangler
Key losses: Jenny Ice, Rachel Tripp
Key newcomers: Valeri Beatty, Christina Lee
Outlook: Ritter said DeCeault has really improved and should have a strong season. The Warriors return a lot from last year and could make some noise in the always tough Northwestern District. The team has 28 runners, including a load of freshmen.
"This is the most freshmen we've had in the nine years I've been here," Ritter said. "We should have a strong 1-2-3-4, but we need to add some depth. We're in a really strong region."
Coach: Mike Tanner
Last year: Finished fifth in the Northwestern District meet
Key returners: Judy Grigsby, Valerie Hindley, Laura Moran, Noa Sager, Kayla Williams, Alex Zarzuela
Key losses: Melanie Hindley, Sarah Sargent, Leslie Sierra
Key newcomers: Amy Buracker, Sabrie Neeb, Adeline Tederick
Outlook: The Hawks should be much improved from last season with a lot of returners. Skyline also has some solid newcomers, including Neeb and Buracker, who played volleyball last year.
"We want to be more competitive this year," Tanner said. "I think we have some new girls who will really help us out."
Coach: Mary Clanahan
Last year: Finished eighth in the Region B meet
Key returners: Ashley Eickenhorst, Estafania Resendez-Garcia, Callie Gibson, Kayleigh Loy, Mandy Miller, Kaitlin O'Connell, Bethany Sager
Key losses: Amber Campbell
Key newcomers: Kortni Beason, Rhea Jett
Outlook: The Generals return plenty of top runners from last year, and have plenty of reasons to be optimistic about this season. The Generals have advanced to regionals the last three years and there's no reason to think they won't be able to keep it going.
"The girls came in ahead of where they were last year," Clanahan said. "Getting back to regionals is a big goal for the team."
Coach: Jeff Rudy
Last year: Finished second in the Group A state meet
Key returners: Katlyn Ayers, Kirsten Campbell, Sarah Elbon, Rachel Taylor,
Key losses: Gabe Giersch, Paige Shaw
Key newcomers: Morgan Carter
Outlook: The Rams have the bulk of their state runners-up team back this season. Expectations are naturally high for the Rams, who are led by defending Group A individual state champion Ayers. As always, they will have tough competition within their district in defending state champion George Mason and Clarke County.
"Our team looks really strong, all of them are underclassmen," Rudy said. "And we're looking forward to watching the season unfold."
Coach: Jeremy Burnworth
Last year: Finished ninth in the Region II meet
Key returners: Ariel Asher, Kayla Gibbons, Leanna Eisenman
Key losses: Britani Waltz
Key newcomers: Rachel Oden
Outlook: Warren County has twice as many runners out for the team this season (17) as last year. The Wildcats won the regular season district title and with a talented core returning led by Gibbons, who finished 12th in the state meet last year, the Wildcats should have an outstanding season.
"Kayla has been strong this summer, and I look for great things from her this year," Burnworth said. "I think this group can win the district this year."