Photos by Mary Ann Magnant
“The goal was to be at the state meet, obviously. I wasn’t sure that I knew who was running. This year was a really interesting year because I graduated three seniors… I had a lot of holes to fill in the guys,” distance coach Jerry Hertzler said.
After the loss of previous seniors Isaiah King, Evan Jost and Ashton Landes to the indoor track boys 4×800 meter relay, the team had a long ways to go before they eventually raced against Virginia’s best at the State meet.
“David was the only one returning… Pretty early on I started to realize Tucker came to play. Alex was unexpected because I didn’t know he was running distance. And then of course the battle was between Michael and Hayden for that fourth spot,” Hertzler said.
Sophomore David Beck was finally getting over the flu in the days before the regional meet and was hoping to cross the line as a State-qualifier in three-events. Junior Tucker McGrath returned to his third season on the team throwing down personal bests at almost every meet. Senior Alex Hulleman was new to the whole scene, but he was willing to put in the work. Sophomore Hayden Kirwan had missed qualifying to the State cross country meet by one place just a few months earlier, and he wasn’t about to miss his chance again.
Seeded second at regionals, the team just needed to finish in third place or better to make it to the biggest event in high school running: the VHSL State Championships.
Each of the runners would be making their first State appearance for indoor track, an exciting prospect for McGrath.
“This was my first time qualifying to States, so I kind of teared up a little bit, not going to lie,” McGrath said.
Although the experience was gratifying for Hulleman, he wasn’t all that surprised due to his confidence in the team.
“Actually it was kind of underwhelming because I knew in the beginning we had the times to qualify. That wasn’t really when I felt like, ‘Oh this is really cool,’” Hulleman said. “I knew at the beginning of the season that it was my goal to make it to the state meet.”
Unfortunately, that confidence was slightly shaken for Hertzler as the gun went off at the start of the region meet.
“Region and State were just weird this year. I felt like the girls would [qualify], and then when they didn’t I was disappointed for them. I also felt like the guys would go, but just having experienced that with the girls I was like, ‘Oh crap, this isn’t given’… I think it was pretty clear when [Beck] took the baton we were going to be ok, [though],” Hertzler said.
Eight short days after qualifying, Friday Feb. 22, the team arrived at Boo Williams Sportsplex to face off against 13 other teams in the 4×800 relay.
“I could see it in their eyes on Friday evening. I wouldn’t say overwhelmed, but it was just the newness of it all. The newness of, ‘Oh crap we’re at the state meet.’ Stressful is probably a good explanation of that,” Hertzler said.
Hulleman was buzzing with adrenaline, but he used the feeling as motivation to run well.
“It was really energetic. My parents were there, my grandparents were there, everybody was cheering for me. I was nervous, but that kind of helps when you’re running,” Hulleman said. “It was really exciting. It was our biggest meet of the year, it’s the biggest race there is.”
McGrath, leading off the relay, was thrown into the race with the shot of the gun. Within 50 meters of the start, one team was already down, their baton flung off the track and into the stands.
“I wanted to run 2:02 or below, which I did. I also wanted to hand off in a pretty good position, which didn’t really happen… At least in the first leg it’s super, super physical, so you kind of butt heads with everyone else a lot, which is fun,” McGrath said.
Receiving the baton from McGrath, who ran a two second personal record for a split of 2:02, Kirwan was looking to help his other three teammates as much as possible.
“My goal was to try and hold [McGrath’s] position as best as I could… I don’t like many short distances, so this is definitely a challenge for me. I would also say that having to uphold your leg for three other people is a big challenge,” Kirwan said. “I was just happy to be there. I would’ve liked my leg to go slightly better, but overall I was happy for the experience.”
Transitioning into the second half of the race, Hulleman took the baton in 12th place, right where the team was seeded.
“For me personally, I just wanted to run my best time of the year. I wanted everyone else to run their best times of the year as well,” Hulleman said. “[I also like] the gamesmanship of it. You’ve got to figure out when to pass people. Got to figure out when to speed up, slow down, when to settle into the pace.”
In the final minutes of the race, Hulleman passed the baton to Beck for the last four laps of the team’s season.
“I was pretty drained, I just didn’t have any reserves going into the race. It was hard to get through that second portion of it, but we did what we needed to do and at the end of the day we came out where we wanted to be,” Beck said. “The 800 is just a dead sprint for a distance runner. It’s everything you have, and so it’s really draining. You get through those first two laps and you really don’t want to get through those last two because you know they’re going to hurt. It’s just a really hard race overall… [but[ they’re all great teammates. They’re really supportive whether you have a good performance or a bad performance and they’re always there to pick you up no matter what.”
The team crossed the line in 12th place at 8:30.71, just one second off their personal best.
“Their performance, based on all the circumstances leading up to it, was awesome. I think we all have that little bit of bad taste in our mouth because our hopes and expectations were higher than what we were able to accomplish. I’m never happy just to get to the state meet. I want to improve, I want to run better, but given all the circumstances as far as injuries, sickness, etcetera, what I told them was how I felt truthfully. If you can come to the state meet and equal your best mark of the season and equal your ranking going in, you’ve had a good day, and they did those things,” Hertzler said.
With only one week off until the start of outdoor, the team had already turned their attention to the next State meet in June.
“We definitely want to be All State in outdoor. We all had pretty good races at the State meet, but I know we can all do better,” Beck said.
Kirwan believes focusing on the team dynamics and workouts will contribute to a better race in outdoor.
“[We plan to] continue with the team building we already have and the training we’ve been able to do with Coach Hertzler. Being able to develop a tight group of five people that is able to run well together [will help us in outdoor],” Kirwan said.
Having competed in one State track meet, Hulleman feels the teams’ experience will guide them to more record times in the near future.
“I just like the environment. Your try your hardest you’re going to get better, and it’s really rewarding when it’s your personal best or you win a race,” Hulleman said. “We’ve got some confidence knowing that we’re a state-qualifying team, so I just want to use that to try and get faster.”