By Jeff Nations
WOODSTOCK -- Melissa Wright's message during her time as Central's cross country coach can be boiled down to a fairly straight-forward concept -- team first -- but putting that idea into successful practice has been the real spark for the Falcons' program.
"We tried to instill in them, from the very beginning, that it's more than just a team -- it's a family," Wright said. "You're connected to the people who ran before you, and you have an obligation to set a standard and help those who come behind you. This year at the state meet, we had several alumni show up and support their former teammates -- it's always a joy to see them come back."
Those former Falcons made the trek to The Plains on a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning to watch and support the latest generation of Central runners compete at the highest level in the Group A state meet. They had plenty of Falcons to cheer for -- Central, under Wright, was the only area school to qualify for the team competition in both the boys and girls state meets.
Wright, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2012 Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year, credits Central's support network of past runners, Falcons assistant coach Larry Bullock, the lasting influence of former Central coach Joseph Huddle -- all key components, to be sure -- but mainly she attributes Central's success to the athletes.
"When you have great kids around you, they make you look good," Wright said. "I think we have top-quality kids and they perform well."
A solid senior class ensured that Central wouldn't lack for leadership this season, even after losing top runner Brandon Poff to graduation. Seniors Tony Whetzel and Jason Ruckman, in particular, helped fill that void as both leaders on the course and in practice.
Strong leadership is something Wright as simply grown to expect among Central's runners.
"I feel like our boys have continued our tradition in our cross country program," Wright said. "Definitely our seniors stepped up to the plate and were great leaders. They showed, by their example in practice and during meets, how to run and how to run well. I'm very pleased with their overall accomplishments in the regular season and district."
The Falcons opened the postseason with a third-place effort in the always-tough Bull Run District meet, finishing behind only George Mason and Strasburg as Whetzel (fourth) and Ruckman (12th) were supported by solid efforts from Ryan Freiwald (16th), Taylor LaFever (17th) and Skylar Wolf (22nd).
Moving into the Region B meet, the Falcons maintained that third-place status with another strong collective effort. Central surpassed district rival Strasburg, which slipped to fifth and didn't qualify for states, as Whetzel (13th), Ruckman (16th), Nick Waldron (27th), Freiwald (28th) and Wolf (33rd) delivered the scoring.
"I was sort of surprised at regionals, a little bit," Wright said. "I was expecting a fourth-place finish and they came in third and had a really good day that day."
Central had high hopes for the state meet at The Plains, but it wasn't the Falcons' best day as they finished sixth behind the efforts of Whetzel (29th), Ruckman (35th), Freiwald (50th), Tristan Speidel (64th) and Waldron (67th).
"I thought they ran pretty well at states," Wright said. "Looking at their times, they were pretty consistent with what they had been running. We, of course, had hoped to be a little higher than sixth place. But we told them, at the end of the day, sixth in the state is quite an accomplishment. They did well."
Wright once thought her coaching career would take a much different path. Her experience was as a basketball player, although her first coaching job at Central was helping with the track and field program. That's where she connected with Huddle, who convinced her to help out during the following cross country season.
"I had always heard that if you want to learn how to be a successful coach, you need to hang out with people who are successful," Wright said. "I came out and joined the program that year, as a volunteer for the first year and a half. I owe a lot to Coach Huddle on how I run and do things. He was a great mentor. And when he left the program, I took it over."
Having Bullock's help in running the program has also been a big boost for Wright and the Falcons.
Bullock's steady support and a group of highly motivated runners was even more beneficial than usual for Wright, who spent much of the season on crutches after undergoing knee surgery.
"I wasn't quite sure about the first week of practice, how it was going to be," said Wright. "But you get up every day and you say, 'Can you get through today?,' and the answer was always, 'Yes, I can make it through today.'"
"... I'm so fortunate to have Larry Bullock as our assistant coach. I don't look at it like I'm head coach, he's assistant coach -- we work very well together as a team. The kids pretty much know if they ask me or him the same question, they're usually going to get the same response. That is huge in a program, that you can be on the same page and be consistent with the kids day in and day out."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>