Caroline Alcorta had every reason to feel good after last week’s Conference 7 cross-country meet. She had just won a district championship and, in the process, put up the fifth-best performance ever witnessed at a girls race at the hallowed Burke Lake course.
Yet as she walked away from the finish line, anxiety began to mount. Was her time of 16 minutes, 45 seconds the best she could do?
“I thought I’d maxed out,” Alcorta said. “The worry going into districts and regionals is always if you run as hard as you can for districts whether you have anything left for regionals.”
It turns out she had a little gas left in the tank. The West Springfield senior didn’t just shatter the 16:42 mark posted by Lake Braddock’s Sophie Chase last year; she ran right toward the top of the record books, finishing Wednesday’s Group 6A North regional meet in 16:31, the third-fastest time ever run at Burke Lake.
Perhaps Alcorta’s time would be regarded as the second fastest if it weren’t for an unfortunate historical anomaly. Annandale’s Aimee Harms recorded a time of 16:30.7 in 1985, but it has stood as 16:30 because back then times were taken to the tenth of a second. Alcorta was clocked at 16:30.1, but today’s rules dictate that all times must be rounded up to the next whole number.
That technicality aside, Alcorta was just happy to meet her goal of breaking 16:40. Her coach, Chris Pellegrini, said after the conference meet last week that he thought his star runner had about 15 more seconds in her if the weather turned out to be a bit cooler this time around. Mother Nature didn’t cooperate, as temperatures hovered in the mid-60s on Wednesday, but Alcorta put on a show anyway.
“One of the nice things about Burke Lake is that you run it enough times that you get to the very last one your senior year and sometimes the great runners can do something very special,” Pellegrini said. “So I wanted her to know: You’re on this list pretty high, but today is your rest-in-peace moment. It’s where you’re going to sit forever.”
Alcorta said she initially was skeptical at her coach’s belief that she still had so much room for improvement. Her 16:45 mark felt like her best effort, so she wasn’t sure how much lower she could go.
But she knew she had a chance at something special when she checked her progress during the race: 5:20 at the mile mark, 10:48 at the two-mile mark.
“My coach keeps telling me this stuff and I don’t always believe him, but I guess he was right,” she said.
As Alcorta barreled toward the finish line all alone, high school onlookers—and even this reporter—were witnessing a singular performance that hadn’t been matched since the time they were born. Harms’ 16:30 time was good for second place in the 1985 race, which saw Langley junior Erin Keogh set the all-time standard in 16:09. Keogh went on to win the national meet that year, and Harms took fourth.
The rest of the West Springfield girls turned in gutsy efforts to help the Spartans finish in third place and qualify for their first state meet since 2009. Their No. 2 runner, Katie Kennedy, ground through the last mile on a bum ankle to finish in 20th place, while their No. 5 runner, Abby Snyder, overcame illness to finish 38th.
The Oakton girls cruised to a first-place team finish behind Allie Klimkiewicz’s third-place finish (17:21) and Hailey Dougherty’s eight-place finish (17:47). Lake Braddock senior Hannah Christen claimed second place in 17:19 to lead the defending champion Bruins to fourth place.
The day’s lone surprise came in the boys team competition, which saw Chantilly defend its title without the services of Sean McGorty (Stanford). McGorty’s younger brother, Ryan, led the Chargers to victory with his fourth-place finish (15:13), followed closely by teammate Dakota Lange (15:21).
The Chargers, who finished a close second behind Robinson at last week’s conference meet, came in with a strategy for each runner. McGorty and Lange needed to finish ahead of all the Robinson runners; Peter Melander and Adam Huff needed to be in Robinson’s pack or ahead; and Evan Compton and Miraj Khan needed to be just behind those guys. All parts of the mission were accomplished.
“Last year winning felt good, but it was a little more expected,” McGorty said. “This year I like it a lot more because we worked so much harder. It feels really great to get this one.”
Oakton’s John Stoney took the boys individual title with a personal-best time of 14:54, which was 11 seconds clear of second-place Nick Causey of Osbourn Park. Lake Braddock’s Alex Corbett finished third in 15:09.
Stoney’s goal going into the race was to break 15 minutes. He stayed shoulder-to-shoulder with Corbett for much of the race but used his strong kick to burst ahead about 400 meters past the two-mile mark.
“Last week we went out a lot slower,” Stoney said. “We actually went out about 20 seconds faster this week, so it just made it a lot easier to just hang on and kind of do the same thing as last week.”
Neither Alcorta nor Stoney have a particular time in mind for Friday morning’s state meet, which will be held at Great Meadow in The Plains. Their aim is simply to win. If they run the way they did at Burke Lake on Wednesday, dreams of a state trophy will likely be fulfilled.