This time last year the Damascus girls were celebrating the 3A state victory of their male counterparts, but the Lady Hornets had also come within one heart-breaking point of winning their own indoor state title.
For months, rumors swirled about the end of the reign of long-time Damascus head coach Robert Youngblood. Following the 2010 cross country season, the rumors became reality and assistant coach Elrid Cason took over as Damascus head indoor track coach.
Cason and new distance and throwing coach Jason Bozicevich knew they were inheriting a very good girls team and set it as a goal from the beginning to win the state title. They planned their meet schedule around meets that had good pole vault contests to get as much practice as possible for Erin Parker. If the state meet came down to a tight contest, the pole vault points would be invaluable. Their less conventional schedule included two meets in Hagerstown and one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
According to Bozicevich, Parker is one of the hardest workers on the team and is the first to arrive and last to leave. She works with a pole vault coach on Sundays and hits the weight room three times per week on top of her normal practice with the team. Such dedication has turned her into one of the state's top pole vaulters and tied for second best in Montgomery County in the last ten years.
After placing sixth at the county championship meet, the Damascus girls rolled through the regional meet with a 26 point win over second place Clarksburg. The coaches said they were not expecting to win by that margin of victory and only wanted to qualify as many girls as possible to the state meet. Seven individuals and two relays qualified.
At the state championship, the coaches said they did not put pressure on the girls to win. They were doing the mental math as the meet progressed, but they didn't tell the girls how the team competition was unfolding.
Early in the meet, things were not looking good as the 4x800 relay with Erin Parker, Natalie Dagher, Courtney Mason, and Alex Carroll scored fewer points than expected despite running a season best time of 10:06.11. Similarly, Lakayja Alston only pulled in two points despite running a personal best time of 42.67. The coaches made sure the girls focused on the positive takeaways of running season best times.
Midway through the meet, Damascus started to get on a roll in their stronger events. Parker unexpectedly tied for third in the pole vault with a career best mark of 9-06. Alex Carroll finished third in the 500 with a personal best time of 1:19.98 and Jordan Pitchford finished fourth in the high jump with a mark of 5 feet.
Damascus was not expected to score very much in the 1600 and 3200, but Courtney Mason mustered a personal best 1600 time of 5:40.33 despite feeling sick. She scored one point for the team but was unable to go for the 3200. Allison Marella, with a previous best of 12:49, came up big with an eighth place finish in a personal best time of 12:39.
Following the 3200, Mount Hebron was leading the meet, but Western High School made a surge in the team standings with a win in the 4x200.
Then came a magical moment for Damascus.
Alex Carroll entered the meet as the 3A West 800-meter champion, but was up against tough competition including Brinae Robinson from Western High School who has run 2:17.
After a fairly slow start, Carroll took the lead on the second lap. Opponents tried a number of times to surge up next to her but were unable to match her pace. On the final lap she pulled away for a two-second victory in 2:23.03.
The girls didn't know it at the time, but the team standings were incredibly tight at that point. Mount Hebron failed to score in the 4x400. By finishing one place behind Western in the 4x400, the relay team of Lakayja Alston, Alex Carroll, Erin Parker, and Jordan Pitchford clinched the 3A state title by 1.5 points with 40.5. All seven individuals and two relays from Damascus scored at least one point.
Of course there was celebration and a few tears of joy, but the feeling was actually one of shock. The Damascus girls last won an indoor state title in 1997 and have never won the outdoor track state title.
Looking forward, Bozicevich joked that it is amazing what success can do for a team. Many new athletes showed up for the first day of outdoor practice, some, he believes, with potential to contribute to the state champion Damascus girls team.
As Coach Wise, jumping specialist, takes over as the outdoor track head coach, the biggest boost to the girls team will probably come from Jordan Pitchford, not only because outdoor track consists of long jump and triple jump at the state meet, but also because Pitchford struggled with a back injury for the first half of the indoor season and was unable to perform up to her potential. Perhaps the most versatile and agile athlete on the team, Pitchford looks to be a healthy contributor to the reigning indoor state champs as we move into the spring season.