By Brian Eller
THE PLAINS -- Katlyn Ayers doesn't like it when an opponent is close behind.
For some runners, having somebody on their heels might serve as motivation to keep pushing harder and harder, but that doesn't work for Ayers. If it were up to the Strasburg junior, her closest opponent would be plenty of distance away.
So when George Mason's Julia Estrada started to close in on Ayers, who held the lead in the Group A state cross country championships with less than 100 yards to go, Ayers knew she couldn't let her cushion slip away.
"When I'm out in front, I can just focus on what I'm doing and listen for the coaches and spectators to gauge where I am on the course," Ayers said. "[Estrada] and I have raced together plenty of times this year and every race she's bringing something different. I looked back and she was catching up to me."
Fortunately for Ayers, her closest competitor ran out of course before she could get any closer and despite the home stretch being a little too close for comfort, Ayers brought home the individual state championship, crossing the finish line in 19:08, three seconds ahead of Estrada.
"My plan was to get out there and get the lead as soon as possible," Ayers said, still trying to calm her breathing after her championship run. "It's a really flat course so you can go pretty fast and I was able to take the lead early on, but [Estrada] did a good job of staying with me."
In fact, the duel between Ayers and Estrada wasn't exclusive to states. With both girls in the Bull Run district, there were plenty of showdowns between the two teams' top runners.
In the district meet back on Oct. 27, Ayers and Estrada finished one-two, with Ayers clocking in 31 seconds ahead. A week later at the Region B meet, Ayers and Estrada once again took the top two spots, and Ayers widened the margin, this time winning by 37 seconds. Saturday brought the same result. Ayers crossed the finish line just steps ahead of her season-long rival.
But while Ayers held the advantage in the individual score sheet, Estrada's second-place finish guided George Mason to the Group A championship.
The Mustangs scored 35 points to take the title. The Rams, meanwhile, had three runners finish in the top 20, propelling them to third place overall with a score of 108, their second trophy finish in the last four years.
"I think it shows just how far this program has come in the last four years," Strasburg coach Jeff Rudy said. "These girls worked hard all year and it's tough with the competition we have. The region is really competitive and the Bull Run district as we saw today has some of the best runners in the state. I'm really happy for our girls and excited for the future of this program."
On the boys side, it was Central's Brandon Poff that registered an impressive performance. His seventh-place finish with a time of 16:47 guided the Falcons to a sixth-place team finish. Teammates Jason Ruckman and Cole Baker all finished in the top 25.
For Poff, this was his second straight appearance running at states. When asked whether the experience of being in the tournament helped settle his nerves, the junior simply chuckled, adding that with the experience of what to expect in the race, there's the added pressure of knowing just how much talent is trying to win.
"I was actually more nervous [this time]," Poff said. "After being here before, you know just how good some of these guys are and it's tough to keep up with them. I tried to get behind the front group and stay with them and I think I did a fairly good job with that."
For Clarke County, Paul Myer's eighth-place finish helped the Eagles finish ninth as a team. Teammate Jimenez Ronaldo was the only other runner to finish in the top 30. Ally Keuhm finished in 15th place for Clarke County's girls team, and the Eagles took eighth place in the team scores with 217. Stonewall Jackson's Alex Gochenour finished 28th with a time of 17:20.