WINCHESTER — The Millbrook boys' and girls' cross country teams have stolen the show with two wins in two meets each so far this season.
James Wood's cross country teams haven't been that far behind, though.
The Colonel boys took second to Millbrook at the Central Invitational in Woodstock on Aug. 31. At Saturday's Judges Classic at Kernstown Battlefield, James Wood was the top local finisher behind the Pioneers, taking fourth.
The James Wood girls have taken second only to Millbrook in each of their first two meets, and senior Kenzie Konyar couldn't be happier with how the Colonels are performing.
On Saturday, Konyar immediately surged to the lead and held that advantage for almost half the race. Frustrated by her start at last week's Central Invitational, Konyar made the decision to go out hard. That choice didn't result in a win for the 2017 Judges Classic champion, but Konyar wasn't disappointed that she wound up taking fifth because she was so impressed by the performance of the rest of her teammates.
"My strategy today and in general is that I'm not really worried about my self as much, because I have such a strong team this year," Konyar said. "I feel like as a team, we're just motivated to win and do well as a team because we have so much depth this year. I really haven't been worried about my own times, and I feel like that's actually helping a lot, to be able to put some of it on my team, and believe in the team, and have other people to support the team."
Not worrying about her time might have played a part in Konyar achieving an individual performance that should be considered pretty encouraging. Konyar finished Saturday's 3.1-mile race in 20 minutes, 32.5 seconds, a 15-second improvement from her time at last year's Judges Classic.
The Colonels had a lot of reasons to feel optimistic on Saturday. They were the only one of the 14 teams to have four runners place in the top 20. Konyar was also right about the depth, as the Colonels were the only team to have all seven runners place in the top 50 of the 97-girl field.
Millbrook won with 80 points to James Wood's 91 because it had the top two scoring runners (individual champ Ava Bordner was Skyline's only competitor on Saturday and did not factor into the team scoring) and it was the only team with five runners in the top 30.
Three teams will advance out of Region 4C to the Class 4 state meet. With defending state champion Loudoun Valley and Millbrook in Region 4C, James Wood has some challenging competition. But last year's Region 4C third-place team, Woodgrove, is now in Class 5, so Konyar could have more company than she ever has at the state meet. An all-state performer each of the last three years, Konyar was a solo participant at Great Meadow her freshman and sophomore years before being joined by sophomore teammate Elena Farinholt last year.
"I feel like our team, for the first time since I've been here, has huge potential to go to states, to win districts, whatever we want to do," Konyar said. "Everybody's motivated and everybody's working hard every day. I'm excited to see what we can do."
James Wood's boys, the defending Class 4 Northwestern District champions, also finished one place away from the state meet last year, finishing four points behind third-place Dominion.
James Wood coach Mike Onda felt like the boys did well on Saturday. The Colonels' No. 2 and No. 5 runners were separated by 17 places and 32 seconds, and Nathaniel Woshner led by the team by placing eighth in 17:33.8.
"They're all doing really well," Onda said. "[Freshman] Ethan Bowman [37th in 18:35 Saturday] is right up there with the upperclassmen, and you usually expect freshmen to be a little further back. To have a freshman come in and make us deeper is definitely going to help us long-term."
On Saturday, Millbrook coach Kevin Shirk mentioned how hard his runners have worked to improve themselves since the end of last year's cross county season. Among Millbrook's underclassmen, sophomore Carter Johnson's development has been the most noticeable.
At the Central Invitational, Johnson was Millbrook's No. 3 runner behind seniors Silas Schroer and Christopher Simonelli. On Saturday at the Judges Classic, Johnson was not only Milllbrook's No. 2 runner, but he was sixth-best overall with a time of 17:25.2.
Just one year ago, Johnson was running in the JV race at the Judges Classic, where he placed 10th in 19:23.70.
Johnson said the opportunity to train with Millbrook's varsity athletes in indoor track helped put him on track to where he is now.
"I tried my best to stay with them," Johnson said. "By the end of indoor track season, I was with them. I've just been running with them since."
As much as Johnson's improved from last year, he's not satisfied.
"I wish that my times were better," he said. "That's just me wanting more."
Millbrook's entire team seems to have that mentality with two meet wins despite losing six of its top seven runners from last year. The Pioneers have been boosted by returners and newcomers, including Carter's freshman brother Kai, who was the Pioneers' No. 6 runner on Saturday in 18:25.7.
"I was excited for the season, but I wasn't expecting to do this well," Carter Johnson said. "Last week was a surprise for all of us when we got first, and today our main goal was to come out and show last week wasn't a fluke race."
Given the inexperience of both of his teams, Handley coach Mark Stickley was pleased to have his boys and girls take fifth and sixth, respectively at the school's home meet.
"It's just knowing how to race aggressively," Stickley said. "We can run better than we showed today."
Stickley said his son Ryan (27th, (18:15.1) and freshman Max Ware (51st, 19:15.2) didn't have their best days, but he thought transfer Ben Babb (52nd in 19:16.7) had a strong showing.
Stickley told his girls not to go out too fast, and he thought they might have taken that message too seriously. But their performance in the second half of the race more than made up for it. First-year cross country runner and senior Tori Stanford paced the Judges by taking 16th in 21:45.3.
"To a man, they all moved up really nice in the second half," Stickley said. "We just didn't put ourselves in good position early on. That's just race experience, and we just don't have much. For Tori, I would have loved to have seen her get in the top 15 [and earn a medal], but she just didn't set herself up well early in the race.
"I have to take blame, because I'm being overly cautious by saying, 'Don't go out too fast.' They didn't. That's just learning how to race. Tori's never run cross country before. For her to finish as well as she did is outstanding."
Clarke County's top seven looks a lot different than last year, but Eagles coach Jeff Webster said many of the Clarke County runners who are back ran faster than last year at Kernstown Battlefield. Top girls' runners Sydney Jacobsen (22:31) improved by 11 seconds and Kateri Thorne (23:47) improved by 1:07.
"We're showing progress," said Webster, who lost two of the top three individuals overall from last year's Judges Classic with the graduation of his daughter Madison and Skylar Bragg. "We kind of get lost in the big pack here without those couple front runners. Sydney had a great race, Kateri had a great race. Ellen [Smith] was not feeling well. We had a couple of kids who were suffering from some allergies, but that's typical for this time of year.
"But in terms of their overall fitness, they're improving, and that's what I have to look at as we move through the season, because for us, it's 'How are they progressing?' Because it's a three-month season, and we need all of it to get where we need to be."
The Clarke County boys were led by freshman Ben Fulmer on Saturday. He took 35th in 18:32.7, one week after he also led the team by placing 39th at the Central Invitational.
"I'm really happy with the way Ben Fulmer is running as a freshman," Webster said. "This is the second 5K race of his life. He's showing progress. I think his gains are going to come both in terms of his race experience, as well as becoming 5K fit."
Webster said senior Reid Cox would have liked to have done better after recording a PR last week, but his time Saturday was still almost two minutes better than the one he recorded at last year's Judges Classic (19:20.8 to 21:14.5).
Millbrook wasn't the only team to bring home championship hardware on Saturday. The Sherando girls won the 20-team Chancellor Invitational by 54 points (77-131) at Loriella Park and Warriors junior James Harris won the boys' Varsity A individual title by 3.5 seconds in 17:06.5.
"I was very happy [with what the girls] did today," said Warriors coach Megan Roberts in a phone interview on Saturday. "The times don't really compare [to Central's three-mile course last week], because this is a full 5K and I think it's a much more challenging course.
"We had five runners under 22:30, and that's a really great start to the season. Some of the freshmen we have on the team are really coming along, and it's been nice to see them develop and kind of prove themselves. They've been working really hard throughout the summer and through the start of the official season, so I think they're seeing the payoff for that."
Among Warrior runners, the times for Sherando's freshmen ranked second (Eva Winston, 15th overall in 22:01), third (Emma Ahrens, 18th overall in 22:12.5) and fifth (Ryleigh Combs, 23rd in 22:29).
Returning state qualifier Molly Robinson continued to lead the Warriors, taking ninth in 21:40.5, which is 10 seconds and nine places better than last year.
Roberts said Harris did particularly well given that he really wasn't pushed during the race.
"He paced it pretty well," Roberts said. "He went out maybe a little bit quick, but that kind of works for James. He likes to go after it. Fairly early in the race, in the first half-mile, I think he was about eighth. Then he made a move on one of the hills and just said, 'I'm leaving everybody.'
"I wish he didn't have to run alone, because I think he would have run faster if he would have had somebody to push him. But I think he ran a great race for running alone."
The Warriors placed third as a team. Sherando had four runners place in the top 23 in team scoring — only champion Fairfax Christian achieved that feat.
If the Warriors can get a fifth person to get a little closer to the rest of their top four, they too could be in the hunt for a district title. Right now the leaders of the rest of the pack are Luke Waits — a senior who is new to the team and the fraternal twin of No. 2 runner Ty Waits — and freshman Ben Freilich, who ran in the Varsity B race on Saturday but had a time 10 seconds faster than Luke Waits.
"We're definitely going to try and pull those two along," Roberts said. "They just need some more experience, and they're going to move on up there."