By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Whatever disappointment the Warren County girls cross country team felt after just missing out on qualifying as a team for the Group AA meet last season has been left in the past.
The Wildcats narrowly missed claiming the fourth and final state-qualifying spot at the Region II meet at Great Meadow last season, finishing a mere point behind fourth-place Heritage. Instead of looking back and wondering what could have been, the Wildcats have approached this year as exactly what it is -- a new season.
"We've definitely used it as motivation, but we also put it behind us," said senior Kayla Gibbons, who finished eighth individually in last year's state meet. "We're just trying to get better and improve this season."
Warren County would gladly take it if the team qualified for states this season, but the Wildcats began the year with another goal in mind.
Warren County has been the team to beat in the Evergreen District the past few years, with the Wildcats winning the last two district titles. Grabbing that third consecutive Evergreen crown currently sits at the very top of Warren County's list of priorities, and the duo of Gibbons and fellow senior Ariel Asher is making sure the team knows just how important that goal is.
"It's really big for us seniors, and we're willing to just give it our all in practice," Asher said. "Some of the freshman don't understand, so we're trying to tell all of the girls how important it is."
The Evergreen District meet is Tuesday in Nokesville, and Warren County is well on its way to defending its title. The Wildcats once again went undefeated in their regular-season district dual meets, the fourth year in a row that the team has done so.
But in order to claim the district's top spot again this year, the Wildcats will need to continue to get low times from its top four runners, which includes Gibbons, Asher, junior Rachel Oden and freshman Claire Morrow.
On top of that, Warren County must get a solid time out of its fifth and final runner. The Wildcats' hopes of another title could rest on that final finish.
"This would be the third year a row, if our No. 5 can step up, and that's what our goal is," said coach Jeremy Burnworth. "We're a little, I don't want to say weak on the end right now, but inexperienced would be a better word for it. And that's what we need, we need five [runners]."
Burnworth has challenged his younger runners to get faster all season by encouraging them to try to stay a little closer to Warren County's fastest girls. Gibbons, Asher and Oden generally pack together near front of the race, and Burnworth pushes the rest of the team to try to close the distance with that lead pack during each race.
Burnworth said that the strategy of keeping the pack as tight as possible has really helped Morrow lower her times at each meet this season.
"In every race she's gotten better, every race she's gotten closer. It started out at a minute and a half [behind the pack] when the season started, now its 40 seconds, 30 seconds at some of these meets," Burnworth said. "She gotten more confidence each time, and now hopefully this gives her the confidence when she starts a race, she doesn't automatically back off, she stays with them and she runs and finishes faster."
The pack mentality helps drive the more experienced runners, as well. By running together, Gibbons, Asher and Oden are each motivated to finish faster than the other two girls in the group.
Gibbons and Asher said that the three girls have formed a close bond over the last several years, but that friendship goes out the window when they step onto a course.
"Our friendship doesn't matter on the course," Asher said. "On the course we're trying to beat each other. If I see Rachel struggling or she sees me struggling, we're still trying to beat each other."
"It pushes us all," Gibbons said. "When one of us passes the others, then the others want to pass right back."
It's been that drive to compete not only against other teams, but also against teammates, that has been a major reason for the Wildcats' success over the past few seasons. Warren County will lose Gibbons and Asher to graduation after this year, and Burnworth isn't sure what the future holds for his team.
That's fine with him, as long as his future teams show the same drive and willingness to compete that has become a staple of Warren County's cross country team.
"Our goal is be competitive every year, and to get better and to progress as a team," said Burnworth. "Whether that's winning districts or coming in last, it's just one of those things. It's going to go through cycles. We'll take it as it comes as long as they're working hard and they've got a good attitude, and they're having fun."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or firstname.lastname@example.org