STRASBURG -- Ina Rae Crisman was crying.

As Strasburg's Megan Martin crossed the finish line in the 3,200 relay at the Class 2 Track and Field State Championships to become state champions, the Strasburg coach couldn't help but be overcome by emotions.

"I cried like a baby," Crisman said. "It was just pure exhaustion and joy to see what they had done. And I truly love everyone of them. They were just a wonderful group of young ladies that gave me everything they had every minute of the day. I'm very blessed."

The season that the 3,200 relay team of Paige Hiserman, Claire Keefe, Megan Martin, Toni Rhodes and Regan Robinson pulled off was stellar and historic.

They not only won the state title but did it in a time of 9:56.75 to win by over 11 seconds and once again break the school record.

Keefe said after the race as the girls were celebrating it started to sink in what they had done.

"I looked over at Miss Crisman and she's bawling her eyes out," Keefe said. "And I'm like 'oh my goodness, we just won.'"

Hiserman, Keefe, Martin, Rhodes and Robinson, The Northern Virginia Daily's 2022 Female Track Athletes of the Year, were tied together this season in a special way and had a special bond.

Hiserman, Keefe and Martin were part of Strasburg's state runners-up 3,200 relay squad last season. They were adding Rhodes and felt good about the season they would have, but they didn't expect the incredible start they would get off to.

In the very first meet of the season, the quartet broke the school record at the Ram Country Invitational in cold weather. They ran the 3,200 relay in a time of 10:35.04, which was also a state-qualifying time. They had run in a preseason scrimmage in a little over 11 minutes, so they were surprised at how well they did in the first meet.

"I didn't even know that we were anywhere close to breaking the school record," Keefe said. "So I was really surprised about that. That was really exciting."

"That was my first time running it," Rhodes said. "It was the best. We knew we were going to be good right when we ran that. So it was really cool, and along the season we just kept getting faster and faster."

Martin said they knew at that point they could have a strong season.

"We kept getting faster," Martin said. "So we knew we had something good going into it but we never thought we would get a sub-10 (at the state meet)."

Even though they had the state qualifying time, the quartet didn't stop there. Crisman said they continued to work hard and with each meet continued to drop time, including breaking their own record again and again and again.

One of the highlights of the regular season came at the Apple Blossom Invitational held at James Wood. The Strasburg quartet finished second with a time of 10:32.75, going against many bigger schools.

"That was our first real competition," Hiserman said. "I think that definitely helped us drop a significant amount of time."

Keefe said she was also pleased with how they did at the Generals Invitational, which was held at East Rockingham this season. They won the race in a time of 10:19.33, once again breaking their record.

Once the postseason started they did as expected winning the Bull Run District Championships and the Region 2B Championships.

Everything seemed to be set-up for them to finish it off at the state meet, but then something unexpected happened. Rhodes had been battling shin splints for a few weeks and the pain was getting worse.

"I started getting shin splints at the (Shenandoah) County meet (on May 11)," Rhodes said. "That's when it started happening. I had them in practice and then they kept getting worse and worse. And I was like, 'OK well I could be able to run through them.' I would just try to push through it, because I didn't want to stop. I didn't want to miss out. I didn't want to be injured, even though I was. And then it came to a point where I could not run. It was too much, I could not run at all."

Rhodes said she went to the doctor and was hoping for good news, but that's not what they gave her.

"They told me I had a stress fracture," Rhodes said. "That was probably the most heartbreaking thing. It was the worst. But I was so thankful for Regan. I knew she could do it, and I knew she was going to succeed with the team. And I had been running with her the whole season, and she had been pushing me to do better. I knew she could do it."

It was three days before the state meet and the Rams, who were the favorites, lost one of their runners.

However, Crisman said from the start of the season she always made sure she had a backup plan. That's why Robinson always trained and practiced with the 3,200 relay team as an alternate.

Robinson said she didn't think she would be needed, and certainly not for the biggest meet of the year.

"Going into it, I was doing really well," Robinson said. "So I was just like 'OK I'm an alternate if they need me but Toni's being really successful.' So I didn't really feel like they were going to need me at any point. I always knew there was a chance of somebody getting hurt or being sick, but I was never fully expecting that going into it, that the first time I would ever have to run it would be at the state meet."

Crisman said she knew Robinson could do it and she was proud of how Robinson handled it.

"Regan, she just went into it without skipping a beat," Crisman said. "She went into it with confidence. I know she was nervous, there's no doubt. I know they were all nervous about it, but I also knew that they were aware of what her abilities were and that they would be fine."

Robinson said she was definitely nervous, but knew she had to step up for the team.

"It was an extreme amount of pressure," Robinson said. "I remember the night before we were supposed to go down to JMU to run, I was just crying because it was just so much pressure. They had been doing so well, and it was just a high standard to live up to. And I knew that we were seeded really well. I knew there was going to be a lot of good competition to push everybody there. And it was just an overwhelming amount of pressure knowing that this was the first time I'd ever ran that event. It was only my third time running an 800 in general. So to go in there in the situation that I had to be in was an extreme amount of pressure. But by the end of it, it was the amount or pressure that I think that I needed to help just grow as an athlete and just deal with the pressure."

Hiserman, Keefe and Martin said they had confidence in Robinson, but also knew it was a tough situation.

"We knew Regan would be able to push through the race and do the best that she could," Hiserman said. "I think we were all just a little nervous, because it was Regan's first time running it -- and it was states."

Once the race began Keefe got the quartet off to a strong start.

"I was definitely really nervous, because Madison (County) had switched up there (3,200 relay) team," Keefe said. "And so I wasn't sure who I was racing against in the beginning, and I got extremely nervous. But the first 800, I thought it went well. I was definitely nervous about the girls around me, so I just kept running."

She handed the baton to Hiserman, who also ran her personal best time.

"Usually Claire gets a really good lead for us," Hiserman said. "Since she is one of our fastest girls on our team, she does get a significant lead for us. So for me, it's just about keeping the lead. I think I did drop a little bit of time. So that definitely helped a little bit. But I was definitely still nervous the whole time."

Then it was Robinson's turn and it didn't start off like she hoped it would.

"The Floyd County girl kind of came out of nowhere, and started off in a dead sprint," Robinson said. "So for the first 100 meters me and her were very neck-and-neck. And that's when I was like 'I can not lose this.' So I just took off. During the race itself it was a lot of pain to have to push through. But I only had two laps. I knew I only had a little bit more to go. But to be able to push through that for my team and kind of get a good steady lead for Megan felt good."

Crisman said Rhodes was standing beside her during the race and was cheering on Robinson and the girls even though it had to be tough for her not to be out there running.

Martin finished the race off and once she was running she realized the team had a chance to get a special time.

"I was just keeping the lead and making sure nobody gets anywhere close to me," Martin said. "And at that point, (Floyd County) was pretty far behind me. And I could see the clock. And I was trying to get under 10. I was just like 'please do it, please do it.'"

All of the girls and Crisman were shocked at how fast they ran in the biggest race of the season.

"Coming around the last 100 meters, Toni kept hitting me 'they're going to go under 10,'" Crisman said. "And I wasn't saying anything. I was just hoping that they crossed the finish line at that point. And when they crossed and I saw that time I thought 'oh my gosh they went under 10 minutes.' It was 20 seconds faster than what their seed time was."

The girls celebrated together, but they didn't forget about Rhodes and made sure she was part of the celebration.

"After the race we went to go hug Toni," Keefe said. "So it was a really special moment."

The girls said part of what made them successful is the bond that they have.

"Me, Claire and Regan all do cross country together," Hiserman said. "So we have that bond. And then Toni and Megan are really, really good friends and they do volleyball together."

"So it all just came together, and we just became one huge group," Keefe added.

The girls said they enjoy being around each other and will sometimes sing Christmas songs or Taylor Swift songs at practice.

"We have a special bond," Hiserman said. "...We like to have fun. We turn it into fun."

Not only did they have success as a group but also individually. Rhodes had success in the 800 and 1,600 this season. At the state meet, Robinson finished second in the 3,200 (12:10.95) and seventh in the 1,600 (5:51.98). Martin finished second in the 800 (2:24.08) and was part of Strasburg's third-place 1,600 relay squad (4:19.15). Hiserman finished sixth in the 3,200 (12:31.57) and sixth in the 1,600 (5:51.67). Keefe finished third in the 400 (1:01.04) and was also part of Strasburg's third-place 1,600 relay squad at the state meet.

The group helped Strasburg to a state runner-up finish as a team for the second year in a row.

Robinson is the only senior among the five. Rhodes and Martin are juniors and Hiserman and Keefe are sophomores.

What the group achieved this season is something they will always have to remember, and they have already been told they will be put on Strasburg's wall of fame at the school.

"I don't see it getting broken any time soon, unless they break it themselves," Crisman said of the record. "That's something for them to be proud of. They can hold onto that, not only the state championship but the school record. They have so many positives to take away from this season."

Crisman said it was an extraordinary season from an extraordinary group of girls.

"I can't say enough about how proud I am of them and how much they mean to me," she said. "They're just a wonderful group of girls -- they really are."

Contact Tommy Keeler Jr. at tkeeler@nvdaily.com

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