His brother began touting him on the internet before the school year even began, and it wasn't long before the audacious boasts became undeniable truths: Whitman's Andrew Palmer wasn't just the best freshman cross country runner in Maryland but one of the best runners in any grade.
And he wasn't alone. From Landon's Jack Strabo to Churchill's Maryam Fikri, Walter Johnson's Jennifer Spencer and Gaitherburg's Abby Spitler, this year's freshman class in Montgomery County made quite an impact.
Of course, any discussion of this freshman class begins with Palmer, whose brother, senior William Palmer, has been one of the top runners in the county for a few years. Andrew had no previous experience running but joined Whitman's team on William's suggestion.
"I did not know how good he would be until the team time trial," Whitman coach Steve Hays said.
At that two-mile time trial in late August, Andrew placed third on the team in 11:04. He followed that with a 10th-place finish out of 134 competitors in his first 5K in a time of 17:19 at the Peter Geraghty Invitational, and he only got better as the season moved along.
He set his season PR when he placed ninth at the Montgomery County Championship in 16:27, a 5K time no other freshman in the state came close to this season. In the next race, Andrew moved past not only Sam Epstein but also beat his brother to place fourth at the 4A West Regional meet. Andrew again led Whitman at the state championship with an eighth place finish in 17:04, the fastest freshman time at Hereford in a while. After most meets, he could be seen on the medal stand wearing goofy t-shirts along with Epstein.
If it weren't for Andrew stealing the spotlight, the county might be talking about another fantastic freshman from Whitman, Brandt Silver-Korn. Silver-Korn had some previous experience running with USATF before high school. He kicked off his high school career with a time of 11:11 at the time trial. His first 5K was in 18:29, but two meets later in a dual with Sherwood he ran a 17:47. He continued to improve throughout the season until he ran a season-best 17:12 at the Montgomery County Championship. His 24th-place finish was a key to Whitman's success over a tightly packed Gaithersburg team.
Said Hays about his two freshmen stars: "Both are great kids, and we were lucky to have them on the team this year. Both had planned on doing basketball in the winter, but Andrew has now decided to do indoor [and outdoor] track. Brandt is still planning to do basketball and maybe baseball or outdoor track."
Another athlete who pushed his way to the No. 1 spot at his school was Jack Strabo. He was a football player for Landon Middle School and decided to run cross country this year for Landon. His first 5k was in 20:05, but by the time the Landon Invitational rolled along, Strabo had improved to 17:39, a sixth-place finish and just nine seconds behind teammate Max Marinelli. He took over the top spot on his team in the absence of Marinelli in a small meet against St. Albans, then beat Marinelli outright at the IAC Championship with a fifth-place finish. He ended his season with a 23rd-place finish at the DC/MD Private School Championship. According to Landon coach Addison Hunt, Strabo is a multitalented athlete who plays many sports, but he hopes to see him on the track in the spring.
The guys weren't the only freshmen making noise in MoCo. Three girls in particular took the county by storm from the very beginning: Jennifer Spencer, Abby Spitler and Maryam Fikri.
WJ's Spencer was a much-anticipated freshman after she placed 19th with an 11:17 3k in last summer's USATF National Junior Olympic Track and Field Championships. She didn't disappoint, kicking off her high school cross country career with a fifth-place finish at the Magruder Watermelon Scrimmage and a fourth-place finish at the competitive Howard County Invitational. She was the No. 1 runner on her team for most of the season right up through the county championship, where she earned all-county honors with her 10th-place finish in 19:53.
Churchill's Fikri didn't arrive with the same resume, and it wasn't until about midway through the season when she broke off a 19:48 at the Brooks Paul Short Run at the end of September. She placed 17th at the Montgomery County Championship and continued to improve at regionals (eighth) and states (19th), where she was the top placing Montgomery County freshman.
Maryam is one of three Fikri kids to run for Churchill. According to Churchill coach Steve Bettis, she was the top female in the 800-meter challenge in middle school. She chose to run cross country over soccer and was pleased with her decision. Bettis also added, "Maryam is a gem! She was given the nickname 'Peanut' early on this XC season, and she smiles and laughs each and every time people refer to her by it."
Another girl who gave up soccer for cross country when she started high school, Gaithersburg's Spitler had the best beginning of the season of any freshman in the county. She won the Frank Keyser Invitational, the novice race at Woodward Relays and her first dual meet match up against B-CC. She closed out September with a third-place finish in the Bull Run large race.
October was equally as successful: She set her season PR of 19:39 on her home course and won the freshman race at the Glory Days Grill Invitational. She was unable to complete the race at the county championship but ended the season well, placing 10th at the 4A West meet and 26th at the state championship.
According to Gaithersburg coach Herb Tolbert, Spitler broke nearly all of Gaithersburg's freshman records.
Said Tolbert, "I am very impressed by her determination and natural athletic ability. She has a great attitude and will do whatever is asked of her. … She will be playing b-ball this winter and return for outdoor track."
Most freshmen, however, do not begin their high school career as well as Spitler, usually starting slow and improving to a point at which they show great promise for the future. A moment like that came during the freshman race at the Montgomery County Championship, when two athletes ran side-by-side from start to finish: Walter Johnson's Ishan Dey and Gaithersburg's Brandan Stepek.
The winner of that epic battle, by a fraction of a second, was Dey. He began the season running in the low 20s and capped off his season with that victory in a time of 18:09.
Brandan Stepek finished in 18:10 that day but also ran 18:03 earlier in the season, finishing eighth at the Glory Days freshman race. He is the younger brother of Gaithersburg senior Mickey Stepek, who also was a strong runner as a freshman. According to Tolbert, Brandan has surpassed all of Mickey's freshman times. And there's another Stepek who will be a freshman for Gaithersburg next year.
Neither Dey nor Stepek could crack their strong varsity teams this season, but there were several freshmen who did. Three girls in particular made the postseason interesting: Quince Orchard's Stephanie Joson, Northwest's Alyssa Henshaw, and Churchill's Alex Giedd.
Joson is the younger sister of QO's Josh Joson, and she improved over the course of the season as much as any runner in the county. She started the year with times of more than 25 minutes. But in a little more than a month, she transformed into Quince Orchard's secret weapon. She ran a season PR of 20:44 at the Glory Days Grill Invitational, then placed fourth on her team at the Montgomery County Championship and at the 4A West Regional, helping her team win the 4A West title. She was third on her team at the state championship with a 27th-place finish, just one spot behind Spitler.
Northwest was in an interesting position this season: It was greatly lacking in depth. Someone needed to step up. Anyone. Not many would have guessed it would be Henshaw, who began the season running in the 24s and 25s. By October, however, she was in the 22s. Then, at the Montgomery County Championship she set her season PR of 20:52. Her 24th-place finish helped Northwest continue its county championship winning streak.
According to Northwest coach Beth Muehl, Henshaw learned a great deal about racing in October.
"Initially, she would run beside the returning varsity girls and run their pace," Muehl said. "Eventually, she learned that she could start out faster and still maintain her pace throughout the race. … She has shown a lot of enthusiasm for running and is excited to get even better over the course of the next 365 days. She is also a great student with a 4.0 average for her first marking period in high school."
Geidd was the first of four Churchill girls (including three freshmen) who swept the top spots in the junior varsity race at the Montgomery County Championship. She began the season with no running experience and ran her first several races in the 23s. After winning the junior varsity race in 21:31, she was called upon to run on the varsity squad at regionals. In just her second varsity race of the year, she stepped up when some other girls struggled, placing third on the team and 29th overall in 21:34 and helping her team to a third-place finish. According to Bettis, "She loves to run with relay batons while training."
Two freshmen from Magruder also came up big when it counted most. Both Samantha Fritts and Camille Graham played major roles in helping Magruder qualify for the state championship after a slow start to the season.
Fritts quietly improved all season until her breakout performance at the Montgomery County Championship, where she placed 29th in a time of 21:05. She again ran well at the 4A West meet, where she placed 22nd in 21:07.
"Samantha Fritts is a gifted athlete with a great attitude," Magruder coach Nathan Timm said. "She was a soccer and basketball player at Redland Middle School and had the second-fastest time at the Redland cross country mile fun run last year."
She has opted out of basketball to run indoor track this winter and will run outdoor track in the spring.
Even more so than Fritts, Graham seemingly came out of nowhere at the end of the season. Graham joined the team when a friend asked her to in September. After running 30-plus minutes in her first 5K time trial, Graham got her season PR down to 21:13 at the Montgomery County Championship. She also placed 33rd at the 4A West meet.
"Without her race instincts and clutch performances, we would not have been the team that we finished as this season," Timm said. "I've coached a lot of kids, and I've never seen someone go from 30-plus minutes in their first race to vital scorer at the state championships in the same season. She's awesome!"
While the Magruder girls were pulling together as a team to qualify for the state championship, Magruder freshman Nicolas Escobar was dreaming of the state championship as well. Escobar began the season as an immediate contributor. By his second meet, he cracked 18:00 for three miles at the Harford Invitational, where he placed 35th in 17:39. At Glory Days, Escobar ran 17:44 for a full 5k. After an off-day at the Montgomery County Championship, nobody expected anything out of him at the 4A West meet. However, he qualified individually for the state championship with a 17:44 finish on the difficult Watkins Mill course.
Escobar was the one of the top middle school milers in Montgomery County last spring.
"He had a few small injuries this season and missed Bull Run," Timm said. "He had a tough day at counties and then took it easy and bounced back at regionals. He is one of the most coachable freshman I've had and communicates with me like he is a senior. I didn't coach Awit Yohannes, but I believe he may be the most talented male runner to enter Magruder since the current American University star."
The Damascus boys had a down year, but they were one of the youngest teams in the county. Several freshmen give them a great deal of hope for next year.
According to Damascus coach Robert Youngblood, Billy Thane didn't even know what cross country was and didn't join the team until midway through September. He worked hard all season and improved from 20:03 in his first race to second on his team with an 18:28 finish at the 4A West Regional meet. He also placed third in the freshman race at the Montgomery County Championship in season PR of 18:32.
When asked about Ben and Jon Constantinides, Youngblood responded, "All we can say is wow! … Our wonder twins!"
After getting cut from the soccer team, the two brothers joined cross country. Both worked their way up to the varsity squad by the end of the season. Jon broke 18:00 several times with a season PR of 17:53. Both are expected to be varsity runners next year on a much more experienced Damascus team.
Good luck to all the young athletes out there. Keep working hard and having fun.