NXR 2018

From left: Mari Garza, Julia Lattimer, Grayson Lawrence, Audrey Link, Ailene Edwards, Sophia Link, Kaitlynn Wolfe

Blacksburg High School’s girls cross country team is once again headed across the country to race against the nation’s top teams at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland. (Watch a live Webcast starting at 12:30 p.m. EST Saturday)

It’s the sixth consecutive year (and seventh overall) that the Bruins’ girls have qualified for the elite competition, limited to 22 top teams, but this year’s trip to nationals was a bit unexpected.

After a heartbreaking loss to Loudon Valley in the Virginia 4A state championship (ending a streak of seven state titles for BHS girls) the team went into the Nike Southeast Regional qualifying meet in Cary, N.C., focused on finishing the season strong but with measured expectations, said coach Brandon Bear.

“It was disappointing to take second at the State Championship, but we couldn’t let that be a detriment to the seasons and meets to come. We moved on and focused on being as prepared as we could be for the Nike Cross Southeast Regional meet. I think it also helped to not have too high expectations for the meet. We were going in well prepared from a season of good training, but we were relieved of the stress associated with worrying about placing top 2 to qualify for nationals.”

The course conditions at Cary last Saturday were wet and muddy — similar to what the Bruins have experienced in the past in Portland and could see again this Saturday.

Bear said the muddy course didn’t change anything with the team racing strategy last week.

“Our benefit was going into the race knowing that we train for these sorts of conditions all season,” he said. “I purposefully designed our meet schedule to include many difficult courses with challenging conditions. I didn’t realize that those conditions would exist at NXR, but luckily for us this was the case and I think we were more prepared for it than most of the other teams.”

The team’s finishers (and place) included: junior Kaitlynn Wolfe (16), senior Ailene Edwards (19), freshman Audrey Link (35), senior Sophia Link (54), junior Grayson Lawrence (132), sophomore Mari Garza (160), and senior Julia Lattimer (190).

Bear said the runners followed the same formula that’s worked in the past for Blacksburg teams – don’t go out too fast and finish with a strong second half when other teams’ runners start to slow down.

Sophia Link, for example, moved up 57 places from the 2K to the finish, providing a big scoring boost in a meet where the top 12 teams all finished within 100 points of each other.

Though he felt his team had a run a strong meet, Bear said he went to the awards expecting to finish around fifth place – and only the top two teams qualify for Portland.

“I was awaiting the announcer to say ‘Blacksburg’ at any point when they started announcing the top 10. As it got closer to 4th place I thought maybe I grossly miscounted and we placed outside the top 10. To be announced as 2nd was an awesome surprise.”

Seniors Sophia Link and Aileen Edwards will finish their Blacksburg careers having competed at the national meet all four years of high school.

Sophia Link says earning the trip to Portland is great – but the real bonus is getting to run one more cross country meet in high school with her friends and teammates, including her sister, Audrey Link, who as a freshman has consistently ranked at the team’s No. 3 runner this season.

Audrey Link says she’s eager to compete in Portland after watching Sophia go the past three years and seeing older brother Nick Link make it with the boys team in 2012. She’s also looking forward to finally trying the Nike-shoe shaped waffles the athletes get served for breakfast.

Year after year, both the girls and boys cross country programs at Blacksburg High are among the best in the state – what’s the secret to the continued excellence?

Bear credits a positive culture and an environment that allows for success.

“The athletes want to work hard because they know that hard work leads to positive outcomes,and having that strong work ethic can be contagious for the younger athletes who are learning the sport. They want to be successful like the juniors and seniors and see what it takes to get to that level. They want to continue the tradition that has been set by their teammates before them. And they all support each other knowing that we have many more good years to come. The athletes come to practice everyday ready to be challenged and become stronger than they were the day before.”