Even for longtime cross country fanatics, it can be difficult to determine which team is winning as a race progresses. For this year's girls county championship race, fans only needed to watch one girl to know how the race was unfolding: Walter Johnson's Maria Moersen.
Although the Northwest girls only ran a few races at full strength this season, their top five runners have been remarkably consistent. Their strength through five runners had been unmatched by any team in the county this year, and they appeared poised to win their sixth county title in seven years.
The Walter Johnson girls always felt they could take down Northwest, if only they could bring along a fifth runner to match their strong front four. In a dual meet between Walter Johnson and Northwest, Walter Johnson had Northwest beaten through four runners, but with a fifth runner over two minutes behind their fourth, they lost the dual meet by one point.
Someone needed to step up for Walter Johnson and it was understood by everyone that that person was Moersen. She was coming off a great track season where she improved her times to a competitive level and even scored points for the team at the indoor county championship meet. She put in a great deal of work over the summer to help build Walter Johnson into a championship-caliber team.
While the other top girls on the team saw immediate benefits of a summer of hard work, Moersen's season was derailed as she found herself inexplicably feeling sick to her stomach during workouts and races in the early part of the season. She performed poorly at the Woodward Relays while her four teammates swept the top two positions and won the meet. It was discovered that she had salmonella, a serious bacterial disease, and she sat out at the Howard County Invitational.
With hopes of salvaging her season and returning to top form, she worked her way back from the sickness. Unfortunately, she began to develop tendinitis in her knee. She said at that point that she just felt cursed. She lost all of the base that she worked so hard to build over the summer. She bottomed out at the Octoberfest Invitational where she said her knees were hurting and she ran perhaps her worst race ever.
After Octoberfest, several people including mocorunning.com officially wrote off the Walter Johnson girls as a contender this year. They simply did not appear to have anyone who could be a competitive fifth runner.
For Moersen, it was a tremendous amount of pressure to deal with. Everyone was telling her to just run faster. Just run faster? Boy, wouldn't it be nice if life was that simple?
Coach Tom Martin was understanding of her situation. He expressed the importance of closing the gap, but understood that she could only give everything she had. He understood the pressure that she was experiencing without piling on himself.
She worked through the injury and felt great by the time the Manhattan Invitational rolled around. By the Georgetown Prep Invitational, she had closed a gap that was previously over two minutes to just under 30 seconds, but few people noticed because her overall time was slow due to course conditions.
The pressure from her teammates was at its greatest during the week leading up to the county championship. They developed a plan for her to stick with Northwest's #4 runner throughout the race to ensure a team win.
Would the knees hold up? That was not a problem anymore. Would her nerves hold up? Would she have the strength to do it? Would she even be able to find the black Northwest singlets in such a crowded race?
It was so much pressure on one girl. Of course every other girl on the Walter Johnson team had to execute their own task. Anna Bosse was expected to compete for the win. Camille Bouvet and Jenna Willett were competing for top ten spots. Jennifer Spencer needed to stay close to Willett. But those four girls had done exactly that all season. The difference between first and second place would come down to Moersen and nobody knew it more than her.
After the gun fired to signal the start of the race, Moersen sought out the black jerseys like a heat seeking missile. She said that she found Northwest's #4 girl within four seconds of the start of the race. Simply stated, she stuck to her for nearly the entire race.
On the final uphill adjacent to the football field, Northwest's #4 girl, Sarah Sekscienski, sprinted away from Moersen. The prospect of beating their #4 girl was lost, but she managed to finish ahead of their #5 girl Paula Fuenzalida.
Moersen said that one of the first things that she remembered after finishing the race was Coach Martin rushing up to her and telling her how proud he was of her. He told her that he felt like crying because of her performance, and that is a man who has coached many teams through many championship meets.
It became a waiting game for the WJ girls. Bosse finished third while Bouvet and Willett took 9th and 10th. Spencer finished 17th while Moersen took 23rd place in 20:49, one of her best times ever.
At last, the paper results were taped up on the wall of a portable classroom near the finishing area. The WJ girls rushed over to read the final results. There was immediate screaming, hugging, and hysteria as they found that they upset Northwest by four points with a score of 62.