River Hill coach Paul Hugus has noticed one key trait his previous three state-title winning boys’ teams have possessed: Toughness. Not the raw speed to outrun the rest. Not the physical gifts to pass the eye test. Not the edge fundamentally. And though talent certainly helps, none of that is able to click and piece itself together like a puzzle without grit and persistence.
That exact formula has gleamed for Hugus’ Hawks, with three consecutive 3A state titles for justification.
“I think you can train a runner to physically go out there and perform, but if they don’t have the mental side of things, they’re not going to perform very well. We really focus on that,” Hugus said. “It’s really who’s tougher on that particular day. For instance, if the weather isn’t all that great, you have to rise above the conditions.
“Yeah, everyone has to deal with those conditions, but it’s about who can deal with it the best. We’ve constructed that type of mentality and the kids have taken ownership of that.”
This year, the Hawks have the chance to put themselves in an elite group with a fourth straight state title. Only four schools have won four or more consecutive titles – Hereford (1957-60), Oakland Mills (1984-89), Southern (1993-97) and Walter Johnson (2008-11), the most recent school to pull off the four-peat.
Since River Hill has lost four of its top seven runners from 2016 and bumps down a classification in a stiffer 2A, the road to obtaining the feat will be much tougher than the previous three, according to Hugus. That’s where the toughness factors in.
Last year’s top-three teams in 2A — Liberty, Century and Calvert — aren’t fading anytime soon.
“It’s going to be a lot more difficult,” Hugus said.
Sophomore Anish Nanjappa, who placed 15th in last year’s state meet with a 5K time of 16 minutes, 55.26 seconds, is expected to carry the lead role with the graduation of Rahul Reddy, Jacob Parker, Ben Oldhauser and Kevin Reynolds.
Seniors Brendan Fitzgerald and Jake Downing will be the Hawks’ two and three runners. Fitzgerald placed 35th in the state meet last year with a time of 17:41.09. Ryan Rose and Chase McGeehan will solidify the backend.
“They are hungry to have success,” Hugus said. “We’ll see [what happens]. Like always, one meet at a time. I feel good about our guys, though. Yeah, we graduated four of seven, but you have to understand that we have a very strong B team most years, too. A lot of those guys coming up are seniors and they want to carry a streak of four [state titles]. They want to keep that going.”
Other teams that are primed to contend are Howard and Oakland Mills.
Lions senior Nick Deamer, who came fifth in last year’s 4A state meet with a time of 16:27.68, returns to lead the charge. Senior Ian Hinson “should be mixing it up in the top 10 at almost every meet he goes to,” according to coach Zachary Dickerson. Seniors Eric Accardi, Dennis Danieli, Zach Olivier and junior Alex Stawley are eyeing a top-15 finish at the county meet. Ian Hinson has looked sharp and is primed to run up front in every event he participates in, according to Dickerson.
Al Dodds, the Centennial boys’ cross country coach, has actually pegged Howard as the boys’ team to beat.
“[We can’t] get in our own heads,” Dickerson said. “The guys put in a lot of work over the summer and have come into the season in great shape. We just need to focus on us and how we get better.”
As for Oakland Mills, Frederick Eiland II and Jared Nguyen, both top-20 finishers in last year’s 2A state meet, are back in the mix. Anders Chattin, who looks to improve on a 39th-place finish at the state meet, returns as well. Joel Bernstein (42nd in the 2016 state meet) and Jack Pazin (65th) adds to the host of returnees.
On the girls’ side, Centennial is equipped for a state title run, which would be its second in three years. The Eagles placed fourth as a team in the 3A state meet a year ago and return a host of impact runners.
Alison Betler, who came ninth in last year’s 3A state meet with a time of 20:02.17, is back as a junior. Cora Blount, an 18th-place finisher in the state meet a year ago, Cassie Yates (54th), Caroline Shimeall (80th), Aproova Ajith (91st) and Christina Stavlas (101st) are also back and are much improved.
Kirsten Wikner, a well-known name from the track realm, and Naomi Chao, a freshman, add to the depth.
“So many of the girls are looking strong right now,” said Centennial coach Kevin McCoy. “This may be the deepest team I have ever had. Apoorva Ajith, Cassie Yates, Courtney Tse and Marisa Thomas all have make such a big improvements compared to a year ago.”
The River Hill girls put on a dominant display at the Seahawk Invitational at South River on Sept. 2. The Hawks won the event with 87 points, four ahead of Northern-Cal, and although they didn’t place anybody inside the top seven, they did have all five of their scorers in the top 26.
Faith Meininger finished in eight place and Jasmine Tiamfook, the reigning county champion and Howard County Times cross country Runner of the Year, came in 10th.
Meininger, a freshman, could be in for a big debut season.
“She’s been a great addition to the team,” Hugus said. “While we knew we were getting a talented freshman, we didn't know she was going to be quite as ready as soon as she has been so far.”
Other top girls’ teams include Mt. Hebron, which came seventh as a team in the 3A state meet, and Marriotts Ridge, which registered a third-place finish at the 2A state meet.
Emily Beyer, a top-five finisher at last year’s state meet, is back as a senior for the Vikings. Molly Bingham and Tess Dandridge, who both placed in the top-20 at the state meet, return for Marriotts Ridge. Amanda Levey and Sara Younts, top-35 runners in the state meet in 2016, are back as well.
Individually, Kai Muniz of Reservoir and Deamer of Howard figure to jockey for the boys title. Muniz was the top underclassman in the 3A East region meet in 2016, a 13th-place finisher in last year’s state meet and the fifth best underclassmen at last year’s state meet.
“Kai has the possibility to call himself the best runner to come through Reservoir since its inception,” Reservoir coach Philip Rogers said. “He is talented.”
Tiamfook and Betler are among a handful of River Hill and Centennial girls who could battle for the girls county title. Betler was the county’s top finisher at the Seahawk Invitational, finishing in fourth place.
Here’s a closer look a this year’s teams:
Girls head coach: Ivan Alvarado
Boys head coach: Neil Streen
Boys to watch: Seniors Josh Geeseman, Elijah Smith and Jacob Estrada; juniors Nick Weber and Jake Perret.
Girls to watch: Seniors Emma O'Brien and Angela Wei; juniors Camryn Streib and Gabriella DeGrezia.
Boys head coach: Alan Dodds
Girls head coach: Kevin McCoy
Boys to watch: Seniors Steven Mitchell, Daniel Gao and Greg Costello; juniors Justin Ziegler, Zach Deming, Chris Bieberich and David Riina.
Girls to watch: Senior Kirsten Wikner; juniors Alison Betler and Christina Stavlas; sophomore Swarna Velumani; freshman Naomi Chao.
Boys head coach: Roger Volrath
Girls head coach: Philip Johnson
Boys to watch: Seniors Nick Preece and Cole Lahmann; juniors Graham Dilworth and Cole Dwiggins.
Girls to watch: Senior Molly Swartz; junior Corynne Wolven; sophomores Katie Melesko and Alexis Shumate.
Boys head coach: Michael McLain
Girls head coach: Kim Williams
Boys to watch: Senior Ben Yodzis.
Girls to watch: Junior Polina Sobol.
Boys head coach: Zachary Dickerson
Girls head coach: Leah Foran
Boys to watch: Seniors Nick Deamer, Ian Hinson, Eric Accardi, Dennis Danieli and Zach Oliver; junior Alex Strawley.
Girls to watch: Senior Emma Williamson; sophomores Emily Gorny, Amanda Eliker, Madison Radford and Alicia Anthony.
Boys head coach: Gregory Johnson
Girls head coach: Kevin Lawrence
Boys to watch: N/A
Girls to watch: N/A
Boys head coach: Richard Malt
Girls head coach: Jason Conley
Boys to watch: Seniors Ricky Farrell and Sebastian Thorpe; juniors Matthew Mellstrom and Adam Lowe; sophomore Nolan Walchko.
Girls to watch: Seniors Molly Bingham and Sara Younts; junior Amanda Levey; sophomore Tess Dandridge.
Boys head coach: Paul Ulrich
Girls head coach: Leah Clement
Boys to watch: Seniors Sahil Sardesai and Michael Schlining.
Girls to watch: Seniors Emily Beyer and Alexandra Banham; freshman Maria Grafov.
Boys head coach: Phil Lang
Girls head coach: Vicki Lang
Boys to watch: Seniors Jared Nguyen, Anders Chattin, Jack Pazin and Joel Bernstein juniors Frederick Eiland.
Girls to watch: Senior Grace Chaverini.
Boys head coach: Philip Rogers
Girls head coach: Robert Gessler
Boys to watch: Seniors Kai Muniz and Al Hernandez; junior Noah Kim.
Girls to watch: Juniors Annabel Cortez and Meah Konstanzer.
Boys head coach: Paul Hugus
Girls head coach: John DiFato
Boys to watch: Seniors Jake Downing and Brendan Fitzgerald; junior Chase McGeehan; sophomores Ryan Rose and Anish Nanjappa.
Girls to watch: Seniors Jasmine Tiamfook and Alexa Matthews; junior Raaya Khleif; sophomore Kennedy Clark; freshman Faith Meininger.
Boys head coach: Judson Lincoln
Girls head coach: Dominique Lincoln
Boys to watch: Sophomores Andy English and Will Tripp; freshman Angelo Flores.
Girls to watch: Sophomore Emma Orloff.