After having a spectacular freshman season that included an 18th-place finish in the state meet, Josh Hollman thought he'd be in line to be Francis Scott Key's No. 1 runner this fall.
But at one of Key's early practices this season, he saw David Higgs leading the pack. That sight puzzled Hollman a bit, as Higgs struggled at times last fall while running fourth or fifth for the Eagles.
"I said, 'What's he doing up there?,' " said Hollman.
He soon found out. Higgs has made a dramatic improvement since last fall, and, combined with the steady Hollman, gives Francis Scott Key a formidable one-two punch heading into the regional and state meets.
Higgs and Hollman have spent this season battling for the No. 1 spot. Francis Scott Key coach Rich Salkin said he knew Hollman would have a strong season, but Higgs' rapid development has been a pleasant surprise.
"From the first day of practice, I knew it was like night and day from last year," said Salkin. "David was a strong fifth man last year, but this year I knew from the first day of practice that we had ourselves someone who can contend."
Higgs put in a lot of work in the off-season, not necessarily getting ready for cross country, but making himself stronger. He did weight training, ran track in the spring (as part of a region champion 800-meter relay team) and took up bike riding and mountain climbing in the summer.
Add to that about a two-inch growth spurt, and it's easy to see why Higgs is so much stronger.
"I thought I was going to take third position," he said. "Last year, I was always nervous before my races. This year, I'm calm. I have a different outlook."
He also has different results. Higgs opened the season by winning his first race -- at Liberty -- with Hollman taking third place. For a person whose top finish was fifth last year, it presented an interesting problem.
"I had to feel what it was like to be out in the lead," said Higgs. "When you're in the lead, you feel like somebody. It makes you feel proud."
Both Higgs and Hollman have gotten plenty of that type of pride this season. For Hollman, he's continued the steady development that made him such a find for Salkin last fall.
Hollman did not even come out for the team last year until after school started. But he quickly made his mark, moving into the No. 2 slot and running several good races.
"I didn't really know if I wanted to do it or not," said Hollman. "I wanted to get in shape for basketball season."
The point guard capped his debut season by taking fifth in the region and 18th in the state. And this year has been even better.
For Hollman, times have improved by 20 to 30 seconds and he continually finishes at or near the top. And Hollman said that having Higgs there for pushing makes him do better.
The pair work in tandem during a race, deciding upon strategic moves. If another team features a strong runner, both Higgs and Hollman can work on him -- something that helps the team in the long run.
"That's my one-two combination right there," said Salkin. "One thing about the both of them is that if one guy is not feeling his best that the other will pick up the slack."
For example, Key finished fourth as a team at the recent Monocacy Valley Athletic League meet -- helped by the strong efforts from Higgs (ninth) and Hollman (14th).
Salkin said the consistent performances of the two are sort of an anchor for his talented, but very young, team.
Key is completely a freshman and sophomore team. The Eagles, who also get help from freshmen Dustin Derr, Adam Meyer and Josh Shamer along with sophomores Brett Ebersole and Aaron Howard, should be a sight to see next year and the year after.
And Higgs and Hollman should be the first runners you see. Both continue to work hard and continue to improve -- and they do it together.
"We're helping each other more than anything," said Hollman. "It takes a lot of pressure off. It definitely helps having your teammate up there with you."
Said Higgs: "I feel he's an equal. Sometimes when I'm having a bad race, he'll come up and take the lead for the team. We always finish close."