On Monday, the Walter Johnson boys cross country team had a sit down discussion and decided to return as a team to the NXN Regional Meet in Cary, North Carolina in two weeks.
There was never any such conversation pertaining to keeping the streak alive, that is, the state title winning streak. The notion of winning a fourth consecutive state title was rarely mentioned during day-to-day activities. The word "fourpeat" was taboo. As the season progressed, Walter Johnson was written off by many fans, and even its members had doubts.
A telling moment in the season came four weeks in when Josh Ellis defeated all runners from Churchill and Wootton in a tri-meet, but Churchill handily defeated Walter Johnson without one of its top runners.
Then Josh Ellis began missing races. Due to sickness and a nagging groin injury, he missed valuable training time and grew frustrated as he lost fitness.
But something came from Ellis's absence. Scott Sheehan was forced into the role of the team's number one runner. In his first test, Sheehan had the best cross country race of his career, finishing tenth at the Paul Short Invitational ahead of all Maryland competitors in a personal best 16:15. He followed it up by winning a tri-meet against Landon and Northwest by over twenty seconds. Coach Tom Martin said that it helped Sheehan see what he could do when he was relied upon.
Ellis's return could have been the start of something good, but instead it was an unmitigated disaster for Walter Johnson. Ellis led the team at the Georgetown Prep Classic with a 25th place finish while Sheehan finished last on the team over a minute behind. Walter Johnson finished in fifth place behind Wootton for the first time of the season while Churchill won the invitational.
Coach Martin offered that hard workouts prior to the meet could have contributed to the poor performance, but he also attributed lack of teamwork to the poor performance.
"It became glaringly obvious then that they needed to work as a team."
Walter Johnson pulled together a week later for the Montgomery County Championship where they finished in second place just nine points behind Churchill. At the 4A West Regional Championship, Walter Johnson again finished second behind Churchill, this time with a surprising top ten finish from senior James Sauro.
"Based on workouts, you look at [Sauro] and think he should be a top ten kid," Coach Martin said. "He has worked hard for four years, but the kid over-thinks everything. This shows what he can do when he stops thinking and starts running."
With four straight losses against Churchill, the buzz of a fourth straight state title was thoroughly squashed leading up to Hereford. Martin's only advice to the team was one simple thing: Anything can happen at Hereford.
"You will see guys you think should be up front way in the back and guys you think don't belong in the front up there. You have to be able to react to anything."
Perhaps no one took this more to heart than Sheehan who saw an opportunity to win the race and took full advantage. It was considered by most to be the most shocking upset in recent memory, not because there was a definitive favorite, but because Sheehan did not have the prior credentials to beat the guys he beat.
"It boils down to who wants it more," Martin said of Sheehan, who had never previously finished in the top five in a county, region, or state meet.
Ellis followed closely behind in third place and Sauro finished fifteenth. Sophomores Michael Spak and Franklin Floresca sealed the victory.
Spak had an unlucky, injury-filled freshman year, but remained injury free throughout this season and his talent is beginning to shine through.
Floresca is a transfer student from California who grits his teeth and brings intensity throughout the race. He was the team's eighth man for some of the season but was moved up to varsity for the county championship where he finished 25th. Walter Johnson was fortunate to get Floresca as well as another star transfer who will make his debut during track season.
Nobody is saying "fivepeat" yet, but the pieces are there for WJ to make another run in 2012. Three other Maryland schools have won four or more consecutive boys XC state titles. Oakland Mills High School holds the record with six consecutive state titles between 1984 and 1989.
The team's decision to return to Cary, North Carolina will provide a rematch against Churchill and setup a showdown with private school state champion Good Counsel.