The casual observer might not have seen Wilde Lake's Tim Virostek coming.
A junior who played soccer his first two fall seasons of high school, Virostek had enjoyed his share of success as a track runner, but mainly in the middle-distance events. As far as cross country goes, he was the new kid on the block.
The reality is, however, that Virostek was simply following a trend that is becoming more and more popular among the county's elite boys runners — start on the soccer field, end as a cross country champion.
Improving throughout the season, Virostek won the Class 3A East Region championship and then finished as the county's top male runner at the state championships (sixth in 3A with a time of 16 minutes, 55 seconds). And, thanks to that tremendous effort down the stretch, he's the Columbia Flier/Howard County Times boys cross country Runner of the Year.
It's the fourth time in the past five years a former soccer player has won the award. Howard's Joey Thompson (2007) and Glenelg's Robby Creese (2008 and 2009) each played at least two years of soccer before making the switch.
"If you think about it, it makes a lot of sense. You're taking good athletes that are constantly running and just taking away the ball, slightly altering their training and then working on the mental part of it," Wilde Lake coach Whitty Bass said. "And with Tim, Joey and Robby they all had the track background, so there's a foundation already in place to work with."
For Virostek, the first real glimpse of potential stardom came at last spring's 3A East regional outdoor track meet. He set personal-best times in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs while finishing in the top five in all three races.
"He always had potential, but that was when I started thinking he could be really special," Bass said.
Even as Virostek made the decision to focus on running year-round, there were still some questions about how quickly he'd adjust to running longer and hillier races.
"I knew it was going to take a lot of work getting the endurance up … I had been more about speed and hadn't really even done many two-mile races (during track)," Virostek said. "It was a big jump for me."
But after a summer of training, it didn't take long for the doubts to be put aside. In the first tri-meet of the fall, against Atholton and Oakland Mills, Virostek used a strong late-race kick to finish as the Wildecats' top runner.
"He certainly didn't waste any time jumping right in," Bass said. "I wasn't expecting that, that quickly."
With each passing race, Virostek's confidence grew. By the end of September, Bass said he "was coming on like gangbusters."
"For the first couple races I was just following my teammates and I was doing pretty well," Virostek said. "But then as the season progressed I ended up realizing that I could go faster and faster."
By the time the county championship race at Centennial High School rolled around, he had moved into the upper echelon of the county and he showcased that by finishing second with a time of 17:22.
But there were still improvements to be made. Virostek's kick is what had helped him finish second, although had he started it earlier in the race he may have been able to come all the way back and win. Other little things, like how close he needed to stay to the lead pack and how to best attack the hills, needed to be fine-tuned as well.
A week later he showcased just how much he learned by knocking eight seconds off his time to win the 3A East region championship.
"He's very coachable and he listens," Bass said. "Every time he races, you can see the wheels turning … he's always looking for something he can do better."
Although Virostek didn't win at the state championships, it was another breakthrough race nonetheless. His time of 16:55 marked the first time he had broken 17 minutes and allowed him to finish as the only county runner in the top 10 of the 3A race.
"They say times are very comparable between Centennial and (Hereford), so after I had 17:14 there (at regionals) I knew I was capable of going a little faster," Virostek said. "Breaking 17 was definitely a big milestone I was trying to hit and to do it (at states) is even better."
The flourish to end the season has him now thinking of even bigger things for the future.
"He's a kid with unlimited potential, I really believe that," Bass said. "Give him another full year of indoor and outdoor track and he's going to keep getting better. I really don't think we've even begun to explore the possibilities with him." Named to the all-county first team are:
Sam Andrews, Oakland Mills
Postseason highlights: Third at the county championship meet (17:26). Won the 2A South regional meet in 16:40. Finished 10th at the 2A state meet (17:28).
Duncan Enerson, Wilde Lake
Postseason highlights: Placed sixth at the county championships (17:29). Fifth in the 3A East regional meet (17:28). Finished 28th at the 3A state meet (17:44).
Henry Enerson, Wilde Lake
Postseason highlights: Eighth at the county championship meet (17:49). Third in the 3A East regional race (17:25). Placed 12th at the 3A state meet (17:12).
Chris Heydrick, River Hill
Postseason highlights: Fourth at the county championships (17:27). Finished seventh at the 3A East regional meet (17:34) and 27th in the 3A race at states (17:44).
Danny Rau, Howard
Postseason highlights: Seventh at the county championship meet (17:41). Sixth at the 3A East regional meet (17:33). Finished 15th at the 3A state meet (17:20).
Gary Smolyak, Atholton
Postseason highlights: Won the county championship race (17:20). Placed 10th at the 3A East regional meet (17:53) and 23rd at the 3A state championships (17:33).