By Jeff Nations
STRASBURG -- Jeff Rudy's smile was warm and genuine as he gathered his Strasburg High School boys cross country team near the podium at Great Meadow following the Class 2A state championship meet.
Strasburg got near that podium, not quite close enough -- a fourth-place finish relegated the Rams to watching the top three celebrate their accomplishment. A spot atop that podium is where the Rams thought they should be, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying to get there.
Top runner Max Middleton posted a personal-record time of 16 minutes, 51 seconds to earn all-state honors with a 12th-place finish. Junior Nic Campbell (19th, 17:17) and freshman Dylan Campbell (29th, 17:45) also both had PRs on the biggest race day of the season. Senior Timmy Wallis, still hampered by an ankle injury that cost him a chance to run in the Conference 35 meet two weeks before, still gutted out a scoring finish (35th, 17:50). And another freshman, Ryan Davis, also delivered a solid run (54th, 18:14) to score for the Rams.
Rudy, who also coached Strasburg's girls team to a fifth-place finish at the state meet, is The Northern Virginia Daily's 2013 Boys Cross Country Coach of the Year. That soupy day at Great Meadow might have been a tad better results-wise, but Rudy enjoyed watching his young team meet and often exceed its capabilities.
"Our fourth-place finish may appear disappointing, but it was a great day," Rudy said. "Their accomplishments are incredible, especially for such a young team. And we'll have of them back with the exception of Timmy. It's really, really exciting to see that maturation and watch it unfold next year."
Despite losing his top two runners from last season, Rudy was optimistic that this year's squad could carry on Strasburg's strong running tradition. That seems daunting, considering they'd have to do it without graduated seniors Anthony Wallis (now running at the University of Virginia-Wise) and Mark Colson.
The Rams would count on Middleton -- just a sophomore -- and Nic Campbell to step into those leading roles, and that's just what happened this year.
Heading into "championship season" at full strength, the Rams placed second to state powerhouse George Mason at the Bull Run District meet. Middleton won the individual championship, while Nic Campbell (seventh) and Wallis (ninth) also delivered top-10 finishes.
Strasburg was just as sharp at the Conference 35 meet run at New Market Battlefield, despite missing the injured Wallis. Middleton again won individual honors, Nic Campbell gave another of his customary solid efforts (seventh) and freshman Nealon Davis picked up the slack with a 10th-place finish as the Rams took second behind George Mason.
"Without him we probably wouldn't even have made to regionals, without his workouts," Middleton said of Rudy. "He makes us run a lot."
That seemed like a good idea, judging by Strasburg's strong push to the state meet. The following week at the Region 2A East championship at hilly Panorama Farms, Middleton pushed through an off-day to finish eighth and lead the Rams to a third-place finish behind dominating Maggie Walker and George Mason. Nic Campbell was (19th), and Wallis came back to finish 30th despite running on that bum ankle. The freshmen, Dylan Campbell (31st) and Nealon Davis (35th) helped the Rams pull through to the state meet.
It was Rudy's second boys team to make the state competition in his six years as head coach at Strasburg -- his 2011 squad finished sixth in the old Group A division. And while there was some initial disappointment at coming so close to a top-three finish this year, Rudy is justifiably gleeful about the future of the program. Only Wallis graduates off this season's squad, leaving a solid core in place for next year with Middleton, the brothers Nic and Dylan Campbell, Nealon Davis, sophomore Brian Scholten, and Ryan Davis, plus and up-and-coming freshmen Mason Carter, Kyle Tiemeyer and Angel Hernandez.
"Our program is built for the longevity of the athlete throughout his or her high school career, and not focusing on a single season," Rudy said. "... We do have a lot of depth, which we have not had in the past. Now our boys team goes 1 through 7, and there's some great runners behind them."
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>