Last year at this time, the Bethesda-Chevy Chase girls cross country team was one of many chasing defending county, region and state champion Walt Whitman. Fast forward to 2012 and the Barons are the ones everyone else is chasing.
Shrugging off a slow start to the 2011 season that resulted from a combination of injuries and the development of a youthful squad, B-CC sprang up out of the pack of county contenders, including the heavily favored Vikings. The Barons won the Montgomery County championship and went on to capture the 4A West Region and 4A state titles.
“At the beginning of the season, we had a few injuries and what really happened was we all got healthy at the right time and worked really hard and really practiced hard,” Barons runner Kat McNeil said. “We had a really good team last year and obviously we’ve got just as good a team this year.”
In fact, the Barons return much of last fall’s triumphant squad, including All-Gazette performer Nora McUmber, who took fifth at the county meet, sixth at regionals and eighth at the state meet. She’s rejoined by sophomore McNeil (10th county, 13th regional, 32nd state), senior Laura Nakasaka (12th region, 37th state) and sophomore Abby Fry (21st county, 10th region, 20th at state).
“The stars aligned perfectly last year and we were lucky,” Nakasaka said. “We have to go out with the same focus and try as hard as we can and not expect anything.”
Barons coach Chad Young, the 2011 Gazette Coach of the Year, also returns sophomore Annie McElvein, who was injured most of last season but who got healthy in time to place second in the county’s freshman-sophomore race in a time of 20 minutes, 54 seconds. The team also adds sophomore Caroline Beakes, who placed second in the 3,200-meter run at last spring’s 4A West Region and 4A state track and meets and fifth in the 1,600-meter run at both championship events.
“There are a lot of other good teams, we have to stay as healthy as possible,” said Beakes, who played soccer at the school last fall.
Despite being blessed with a talented and deep squad once again, Young enters the season cautiously optimistic while also keeping his runners on guard to remain focused as the young Barons go from being one of the hunters to the hunted.
“We’ve been talking about that,” he said. “I bring up Whitman all the time in practice and what they went through last year. It’s a lesson in some ways. We need to take it one meet at a time. Early on last season, we were beaten pretty badly but as the season progressed, we seemed to get better and better.
“We talk a lot about running well in November. We’d like to copy what we did last year. We’re worried about a lot of teams because we know how teams competed last year. … We’re being smart about our approach.”
That approach mirrors last year, when the Barons performed without the pressure of expectations. So far, it appears Young’s runners have embraced that concept.
“We still have to work as hard as if we were still the underdogs,” said McNeil, whose squad will be tested by a variety of competition at both the Sept. 22 Oatlands Invitational in Virginia and the Sept. 28 Paul Short Run in Pennsylvania.
Nakasaka added: “I think we have to go in with the same mindset that anything can happen. We have to focus on what we need to do to get better.”