Clarke County girls

The Clarke County girls’ cross country team poses with the state championship trophy it won on Saturday at the Class 2 meet at Green Hill Park in Salem. From left, Ellen Smith, Ryleigh Webster, Abigail Cochran, Teya Starley, Sasha Danjczek, Julianna Pledgie and Ava Mansfield.

The top 30 at Saturday’s Class 2 state girls’ cross country meet at Green Hill Park was defined by balance, with eight schools placing at least two or three people in that group.

No one could match the powerful punch that Clarke County delivered outside of the top 30, though.

Clarke County’s third through fifth runners placed 31st through 33rd overall (and 22nd through 24th in team scoring) to give the Eagles an impressive 11-point win for their first state title since 2018 and eighth overall.

Clarke County scored 90 points and runner-up Alleghany — which brought back four of its top five runners from the spring state runner-up and added freshman Neveah Wills (third on Saturday) — scored 101 points in the 12-team meet. Clarke County placed third at the spring state meet.

“I’m really proud of the team,” said senior Ryleigh Webster, who also ran at the meet when Clarke captured the Class 2 state title at Great Meadow in 2018, in a phone interview. “It’s really special to have a state title my freshman year and senior year. I think that’s a really great way to end my running career in high school.”

It was banner day overall for Clarke County, as the boys’ team placed second with 103 points for its best state finish since winning the 2009 Group A state title. Union won with 47 points.

In the girls’ meet, the freshman duo of Teya Starley (seventh in 20 minutes, 19 seconds to earn top 15 All-State honors) and Abigail Cochran (18th in 21:38.1) led the Eagles, just as they have all year.

A veteran group put a Clarke County team that also won the Bull Run and Region 2B meets this postseason over the top by finishing within two seconds of each other. Senior Ellen Smith was 31st in 22:23.8, junior Julianna Pledgie was 32nd in 22:24.9 and Webster was 33rd in 22:25.5.

“Score-wise, I think we were in second place through three runners,” said Clarke County head coach Jeff Webster in a phone interview. “The finish by the 3-4-5 runners was just superb.

“And with Teya, you kind of get to the point where you expect her to be in that front five or six. That was our expectation and that was her expectation. Abby has been progressing really well all year and dropped quite a bit of time. It’s hard to say it came down to any one person, because they all just did so well.”

Overall, five of Clarke County’s seven runners had personal records. Junior Ava Mansfield (47th in 23:10.5) finished ahead of Allegany’s No. 5 runner and freshman Sasha Danjczek placed 84th in the 97-girl race in 26:08.5.

Jeff Webster was particularly impressed by Pledgie, though. The junior improved on her PR by 56 seconds, which she set at Millbrook’s Third Battle Invitational to conclude the regular season. Pledgie was just hoping to break 23 minutes and keep up with Ryleigh Webster.

“The beginning of the season was pretty rough for me, just because I had been dealing with a shin injury, “ said Pledgie in a phone interview. “I missed the first few races and I was skipping some races here and there to do physical therapy.

“Going into districts, regionals and states, I think I kind of wanted to prove to myself that my injury had kind of made me stronger. It made me realize how much I loved running, too. When you can’t run, that’s when you realize how much it means to you. I just really pushed myself today to really test my limits and see how much I’ve healed in the past few months.”

Pledgie and her teammates didn’t necessarily expect to win, because they knew Allegany had a strong team. But by performing their best when it counted most, they made it happen.

“We certainly worked really hard,” Smith said. “It’s nice to see that pay off.”

“We didn’t lay down for the Bull Run and region meets, but by no means did we peak for those, either,” Jeff Webster said. “You try to have your eye on where you want to be at the state meet, and the girls’ team was in a position where we could sort of train though those other two races and focus on being our best at the end of our season.

“We really kind of look for two personal bests all year. Millbrook is a great glass-ceiling race, and then the state meet. It just happened to work out well from that standpoint.”

Starley was glad she could do her part with her performance. She set a PR by one second.

“I just kind of took the week before this kind of easy, to try and give my body a rest before this meet,” she said in a phone interview. “My thoughts were, ‘This is the last race. I have to give everything. There’s no reason not to give everything.’ I just pushed myself to the limit.”

Glenvar senior Carly Wilkes dominated the individual competition, recording a time of 17:47.6 3 over 3.1 miles to beat runner-up Abigail Rhudy of Tazewell by 1 minute and 39 seconds.

In taking second place, the Clarke County boys’ team finished one point in front of East Rockingham, which had taken first to Clarke’s second at both the Bull Run District and Region 2B meets.

In the spring, Clarke County only took fourth at the district meet and fifth at the Region 2B meet. But the Eagles are a much different team than the spring — four of their top five runners on Saturday are newcomers to the team, three of them freshmen.

It was their sophomore newcomer who led the way again. Cal Beckett — a transfer from the Wakefield School — placed fifth in 17:09.1 to earn All-State honors. Freshmen Jackson Ellis (13th in 17:31.5) and Aidan Kreeb (15th in 17:37.8.) also picked up All-State honors. Sophomore Matthew Stroot (48th in 18:35.3) and freshman Jacob Kitner (54th in 18:49.1) rounded out the team scoring.

Six of seven Clarke County runners set PRs on Saturday. Also competing were senior Colin Moran (56th in 18:52.60) and junior James Dalton (62nd in 19:00.80).

“It took some time for them to sort of evolve and perform together as a team this season,” Jeff Webster said. “But they started to really feed off each other and help each other out.

“Having three runners in the top 15, that’s great leadership from those guys. But it comes down to depth. When you’re competing against East Rockingham, for example, which has a very mature, deep team, we’ve really needed our guys to run their best. They stepped up and did that today, and I’m proud of them.”

Glenvar senior Daniel Zearfoss won in 16:20.80 to beat East Rockingham senior George Austin III by 12 seconds.

For more coverage on the boys’ team, see Tuesday’s edition of The Winchester Star.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at rniedzwiecki@winchesterstar.com

Follow on Twitter @WinStarSports1

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