By Jeff Nations
CULPEPER -- Warren County cross country runner Zach Beckner got his moment of extreme misfortune out of the way early on Wednesday -- or so he thought.
Gearing up for the 3A East Regional Cross Country championship meet at Culpeper High School later that afternoon, Beckner was padding along barefoot toward the locker room when his teammates popped open the door to head out at exactly the worst possible moment. Beckner's toe became an unwilling doorstop, and the damage was significant -- a torn and bloody toenail that nearly cost Beckner a chance to run.
He bandaged it up, and along with the rest of the Wildcats arrived at the meet too late to even walk the course before race time.
Smooth sailing after all that, you'd think.
"At the very beginning of the race, I went out hard," Beckner said. "I looked left and looked right and saw that I was in a good spot. A kid pushed me, and I tripped and I fell. I'm in the fetal position down on the ground, and I was expecting like a horn because normally they'll blow the horn again and you go back to the starting line.
"Nothing happened, and I'm getting trampled and cleated -- or spiked. I stand up and I'm looking back, and everybody's up here ahead of me. I was like, 'Oh, this is not good.'"
Beckner got up, dead sprinted up a daunting hill right at the start of the race, and started picking off runners on the way to an amazing 11th-place finish that helped the Wildcats finish sixth as a team and grab the final spot for next week's Class 3A state meet at Great Meadow.
"That just shows his will," Warren County coach Jeremy Burnworth said. "To come back and even get in the top 15 after getting trampled. I mean, most people would just quit. And without him doing that, we wouldn't have even had a chance."
That capped a great day for the Wildcats, who also qualified as a team for the girls state competition with a fourth-place finish. To Burnworth's knowledge, it is the first time the school has ever sent both teams to state competition in the same year.
"I don't want to say I'm shocked, but you always tend to think the worst when you come into something like this and you know it's going to be close on both sides," Burnworth said. "The girls getting fourth -- comfortably -- was awesome.
"And then the boys getting sixth place, I couldn't be more excited for them. They all worked really hard and just ran their guts out today. There were times in that race where I didn't think we had a chance, especially on the boys side. But a couple of the boys came back when they weren't feeling great and just pushed through it."
The Wildcats' excitement was a stark contrast to Central's disappointment on Wednesday. The Falcons just missed out on qualifying for the girls state meet with a seventh-place finish (the top six advance) and the boys finished eighth. Only Lexi Keller and Elsa Garcia on the girls side and Ivan Alvarado in the boys competition advanced as individuals.
"We're a little disappointed," Central coach Melissa Wright said. "We had hoped and felt like we had a good chance to be top six on both sides. It just didn't happen today."
Skyline, which had three runners in the boys race, also mixed disappointment with success on Wednesday. The Hawks' Luke Cline earned a state qualifying spot with a 31st-place finish in 17 minutes, 58 seconds, but teammates Justin Haggerty (35th, 18:06) and Tanner Steed (37th, 18:09) just missed the cut as top 10 individuals not on state qualifying teams.
"It's just unfortunate, that's all," Skyline coach Mike Tanner said. "I knew we were close, and I was right. That's awesome for Luke. It's bittersweet, but we're definitely excited Luke's going through. He put it out there at the right time."
The same could be said for Beckner and his teammates, who scraped and clawed for every place to advance. Beckner led the way with his 11th-place finish (17:09), but the Wildcats also got solid scoring efforts from Nick Myers (33rd, 18:02), Nathan Lund (43rd, 18:21), Erik Stafira (57th, 18:46) and Zach Workman (67th, 19:10).
Workman was typical of Warren County's effort. Burnworth said the senior "looked terrible" through the first two-thirds of the race, but then something seemed to click.
"I told him, 'If you don't pass some people, we're done,' and he just found a way to come back and make it a solid race," Burnworth said. "There were too many instances throughout that race where the guys passed people that they had to pass and just showed a lot of guts."
Warren County's girls did much the same, as Rachel Oden (13th, 21:07) and Fiona Sayers (14th, 21:11) led an impressive collective day for the Wildcats. Both earned all-regional honors with their top 15 performances. That might have been expected of Oden, the Wildcats' top runner all season, but Sayers took another step in her dazzling progression.
"This is the first season that I've actually been ranked like top three on this team," Sayers said. "It's all kind of new to me to like actually run it for real, I guess you could say. I kind of just came in expecting to have a good race, but I never expected to be right behind Rachel."
Oden said having Sayers close by through much of the race helped her get through the unseasonably warm day on the course.
"I guess I felt good, and then I think the heat kind of caught up to me and I just couldn't get control of it and I kind of fell back," Oden said. "That's when Fiona came up, and me and her kind of work off each other because we're so close. I saw her working, and I knew I had to keep on working because if one person falls off, that means the whole team has to feel the damage from that one person."
Also adding scoring efforts for Warren County were Claire Morrow (19th, 21:28), Jacklyn Rankin (39th, 22:40) and Karley Shanks (48th, 23:21).
"It's just been a wild card this year," Burnworth said. "We really didn't think we had a chance this year to make it to regionals, let alone states. It's just the girls' effort and their willingness to put the work in. I don't know, it's kind of like a miracle to me. None of us would have expected them to do what they've done this year coming into the beginning of the season."
Keller finished 20th for Central's girls in 21:31, and Garcia was 23rd in 21:40. Both are moving on to states, but that was little consolation on Wednesday.
"It's really upsetting," Garcia said. "I'm just really upset that we as a team didn't go."
Alvarado also delivered a gritty effort to finish 30th in 17:57 for Central to earn a trip to next Saturday's state meet at Great Meadow.
"It's pretty remarkable," Wright said. "He said he got a leg cramp and a side stitch during the race, so he held it together and kept at it, and he gets to run for another week."
Brentsville won the boys competition, and Loudoun Valley's Andrew Hunter (16:17) captured the individual title. Loudoun Valley won the girls race, and Warhill's Miriam Buscher (19:32) was the individual champion.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>