Athlete of the Week: Williams shines for Sherando’s girls in conference meet

Stella Williams Rich Cooley/Daily

STEPHENS CITY – Stella Williams was entering her sixth-grade year at Robert E. Aylor Middle School when her older brother, Hayden, suggested she join the school’s cross country team as a manager.

Williams, who had played softball and always enjoyed the running aspect associated with it, accepted the offering of her brother, who was an eighth-grader on the boys team at the time.

“I just really fell in love with the sport,” the younger Williams said of cross country Tuesday afternoon. “How it gets me feeling in my brain, it’s like no other sport.”

Four years later Williams, now a sophomore at Sherando High School, is one of just three Warriors who qualified for today’s Region 4A West championships at Kernstown Battlefield.

Williams, The Northern Virginia Daily’s Athlete of the Week for Oct. 24-31, led all Sherando runners with a fourth-place finish at the Conference 21 West meet, also held in Kernstown last Wednesday, to grab a regional qualifying spot.

“I realize that I really can do anything I put my mind to because I was really going into the race really excited and wanting to get to regionals,” said Williams, who completed the 3.2-mile course in 20 minutes, 23 seconds. “I’m a lot more confident now.”

Williams said immediately after last week’s race that she was surprised by her placement in the conference’s girls race, which included six teams and 42 racers. Sherando head coach Jamie McCarty, on the other hand, was less shocked about the sophomore’s performance.

“I wouldn’t say that we were surprised. We thought that she could perform at that level. Actually I think we set even bigger goals for this week,” McCarty said.

“I think she was going (into the race) just a little bit unsure but she’s made a lot of progress this year to come from where she was last year, so we’ve been really pleased. We know that she can compete at that level.”

Williams admittedly needed some convincing after what she called a few underwhelming performances in meets leading up to the Conference 21 West championships. She was struggling off the starting line and failing to set herself in a strong position early in races, she said, and she also stumbled during the Third Battle Invitational in Winchester on Oct. 16 that put her in a “running funk.”

Williams ironed out some of those kinks in the conference meet, although she said she still plans to push a little harder off the starting line today when attacking the lengthy incline that marks the start of the Kernstown Battlefield course.

“I felt like my form was a lot more controlled and I was really pushing up the hills,” Williams said.

McCarty said Williams, who advanced all the way to the Group 4A state meet with Sherando’s entire girls squad last season, has put herself in a position to run some of her best races of the fall in the postseason meets.

“When you get to this point in the season it’s about racing – racing people and racing places,” McCarty said. “I think Wednesday she did a good job of that, especially the second half of the race where she really moved up a lot. We had her somewhere 12, 13 and then all the sudden she comes through the gate and she’s fourth. She did a good job putting herself in the right position.”

Williams, running side-by-side with teammate Paige Conner, was in 12th place as the duo approached the same steady climb that marks the beginning of the course as the race neared the second mile. By the time Williams emerged from the wooded area and traversed down another slope toward the finish line, she had pushed her way into the top five.

“Surprisingly that wasn’t the plan. I went into it just kind of hoping to get top 15 and I realized I had a lot more in me and I don’t really need to stay back there in 12th, 14th, wherever I was at. So I really just pushed through and passed a lot of girls,” said Williams, who just edged out Millbrook’s Mellany Groll (20:23.30) and Handley’s Kendall Felix (20:23.60) at the finish line.

Last Wednesday marked the first time Williams had run an official high school race at the Kernstown course as a member of Sherando’s cross country team, and she said she should benefit from running that same trail again today in the regional meet. She knows now, for example, that she can use the wooded area to make some passes while taking advantage of the quietness and downward slope of that section of the race.

While Williams thrived on the course last week, many Warriors had no such luck. Conner was the only other Sherando girl to qualify for the regional meet after placing 15th, the cutoff point for individual qualifiers.

Williams will have one other familiar face in Kernstown today, however, as her brother Hayden placed 14th in the boys race last week and will compete as the lone Warrior representative in that event.

“It’s kind of exciting because he’s worked pretty hard this year and I think he really deserves to go,” Stella said of Hayden, a senior.

McCarty said that although Sherando didn’t qualify either the boys or girls team for the regional meet, the message to his trio of runners left standing has remained similar.

“I think what we learned last week was if you’re not in the race and you’re trying to play that come-from-behind game at a level like that, it’s gonna be even harder. So getting ourselves in good position early and just racing,” McCarty said. “And it’s a one-shot deal. There is no next week. If we don’t run well, next week doesn’t exist for us.”

Contact staff writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or bfauber@nvdaily.com.