By Tommy Keeler Jr.
Jeff Rudy knew his senior class was special from the start.
When Strasburg's Kirsten Campbell, Sarah Elbon and Rachel Taylor were freshmen, the Rams cross country coach could see what a strong group of runners he had.
"Their first invitational, when most of these girls were freshmen, they won the Eastern Mennonite [Invitational] in Harrisonburg and beat some double-A schools," Rudy said. "I saw their athletic prowess, they were young, inexperienced, but full of potential. That was probably the first time [assistant] coach [Katherine] Klus and I saw what they were capable of, and soon after that the trophies came."
Lots of trophies followed, including several more this year. The group reached the podium at the Group A state meet all four years, including a third-place finish this season.
Rudy, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012 Girls Cross Country Coach of the Year, said the seniors represent what he wants the program to be all about.
"Academically, athletically, emotionally, they've just done such a great job of rising up through the years, mentoring the younger athletes, allowing the program to be what it is today," Rudy said.
Strasburg's girls cross country squad lost all-state and two-time individual state champion Katlyn Ayers to graduation, leaving a big hole to fill going into this season.
However, Rudy said he knew the team would be fine because of the senior class and the traditions that had been set at Strasburg.
"You don't replace [Ayers], you simply move on," Rudy said. "She was not only No. 1 runner, but also a wonderful teammate with all the other girls, and you simply carry on. And for Q, Kirsten Campbell, to step up as a No. 1 runner, and for things to come together for a fourth year for these girls is just such a wonderful experience."
Strasburg had more than just the seniors this season, and they had strong efforts from everyone, including Morgan Carter and Madison Orndorff.
The Rams finished fourth in the Eastern Mennonite Invitational and third in the Stonewall Jackson Invitational.
One of the big highlights of the season for the Rams came at the Bull Run District meet, where Strasburg won the title for the first time since 1994.
The Rams followed that up with a third-place finish at the Region B meet. At the state meet, the Rams put together another impressive performance to finish third. Strasburg had a pack of runners finish near each other to total 114 points.
Rudy said it was emotional for him, not only because of how well the team did, but because it was the last race for his seniors.
"It was a tough moment to know that this was their last race," Rudy said. "But they did something beautiful. They ran for each other. And that's one of the things that I stress as a coach, is we aren't even a team, we are a family. And family comes first, before individuals."
Rudy has been the coach for six years, but said he didn't even run in high school or college.
Over the years, he's studied the sport and learned more and more through books, conferences and seminars. He's even helped write a book with running coaches Renato Canova and Scott Simmons called "Conversations with Renato Canova."
Rudy was an assistant coach under Chanda Greco and took over when she decided to step down, and he's loved every minute of coaching.
"[Greco] gave me a foundation from which to work from, and then I had to build a program," Rudy said. "Developing the right program and getting the right athletes to come out is very important. It's about recruitment. It's about having fun. I want the kids to have fun here during their time here.
"The races will blend one into the next, but what won't fade are the memories of a family. The bus rides, the pasta parties, running in the rain, running in the heat, being there for each other when a bad race happens -- a shoulder to cry on. And then the exhalation of victory, too."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or email@example.com