Class 4 state cross country: Wood's Pratt-Perez second in boys' race; Konyar leads Colonels girls to fourth

LEESBURG — In the immediate aftermath of the Class 4 boys’ state cross country meet on Saturday at Oatlands, James Wood senior Ethan Pratt-Perez couldn’t help but dwell on a decision that he felt cost him dearly.

A few moments later, James Wood head coach Matthew Lofton, full of pride and affection, didn’t hold back while trying to make his star runner see the big picture.

“You finished second in the state,” Lofton said. “You went for it and you didn’t hold back. After everything that’s happened at states before, you finished second in the state.”

Pratt-Perez might have wanted more, but no one at James Wood in the last quarter century has accomplished more.

Pratt-Perez’s second-place finish was James Wood’s best state performance since James Connelly won the Group AA title in 1997, and best finish for any Winchester-Frederick County boys’ runner in state competition since Handley’s Bobby Lockhart won his fourth consecutive state title in 2001.

It was part of a day in which Sherando senior Dylan McGraw placed fifth to also earn All-State honors, and the James Wood girls matched the best finish in program history by taking fourth as a team, with sophomore Kate Konyar (fifth) and junior Ruby Ostrander (15th) each earning medals for placing in the top 15.

Pratt-Perez took the lead from Broad Run senior Tarek Benlamkaddem on the steep hill leading up to the 2.5-mile mark, but Benlamkadden didn’t take long to take the advantage back and had a lead of 10 meters heading into the last half-mile of the race. Benlamkaddem pulled away from there to win by 15 seconds with a time of 15 minutes, 33 seconds over the 3.1-mile race.

Pratt-Perez called his aggressive move a mistake.

“I got tricked,” he said. “[Benlamkaddem] slowed down on the hill and I fell right into [his plan]. I just thought it was a moment of weakness [by Benlamkadden]. I tried to take [the lead], and it was the wrong time.”

As Lofton said to Pratt-Perez after the race, he couldn’t fault him for taking a chance against a runner whose top time this season was 18 seconds faster than Pratt-Perez’s. Benlamkadden beat Pratt-Perez by 2.7 seconds at the Judges Classic at Kernstown Battlefield this year.

“I knew Tarek was going to be hard to beat,” Lofton said. “He was favored coming in. But Ethan was seeded second, and you always have to think if you’re second that I can win this. He went for it. Ethan was just like, ‘I’m going to take this,’ and it just didn’t pay off. The way Tarek pulled away after that made me know that Tarek was kind of saving it on the hill and had thoughts on his mind that he was going to move on the top of the hill, and he did.”

Still, Pratt-Perez’s performance was his best at the state meet by far. As a freshman, Pratt-Perez was James Wood’s second-fastest runner at regionals but finished last in a 68-runner field in the state meet at Oatlands. As a sophomore, Pratt-Perez had a solid 25th-placing showing in the Class 4 meet at Great Meadow. As a junior, Pratt-Perez was second by a step in the Class 4 Northwestern District meet and fourth at regionals, but placed 38th in 17:57 to take eighth among the 10 local runners when the state meet returned to Oatlands.

On Saturday, Pratt-Perez ran more than two minutes faster than he did last year, and he beat the third-place finisher by eight seconds. Lofton said he’s been emphasizing mental strength with Pratt-Perez since the senior won the Region 4D meet on Nov. 1, and that showed on Saturday.

“I think [the mental game] is the one thing that’s been hurting him at the state meet, and obviously he’s dialed in now,” Lofton said. “The fact that he stayed in it after he got passed [for first] and didn’t get passed for third is huge for him. I just couldn’t be more proud. Just a phenomenal race. He deserved it.”

Pratt-Perez said he realizes he has lot to be proud of this season.

“I’m happy with all my times, and I’m happy with the way I’ve grown mentally,” Pratt-Perez said. “I’m looking forward to indoor and outdoor track.”

James Wood junior Eli Clark earned All-State honors for placing 11th last year. He was in a lead pack of about 20 runners through 1.25 miles, but he finished 30th on Saturday in 17:11. Clark recorded a time of 16:47 in last year’s state meet.

“We thought he could be top 15,” Lofton said. “He went for it. It just wasn’t his day. As a coach, we can sit back and think about if it’s something we’re doing, something he’s doing. It could be sleep, it could be nutrition, it could be mental, it could be fatigue. Who knows? But he made it here, and luckily he has another year. I’m sure he’ll want redemption his senior year, like Ethan.”

McGraw placed fifth in 16:04 to earn Sherando’s first All-State honor since James Harris in 2019, when Harris took 12th. The only other local to compete in the 103-boy race was Handley sophomore Will Thomas, who dropped out of the race after two miles with a stomach cramp. Blacksburg defended its state title with 52 points, 11 more than Charlottesville in the 12-team meet.

In the girls’ meet, James Wood scored 102 points to finish behind Jamestown (62), Loudoun Valley (73) and defending champion Blacksburg (82). Handley was 11th with 263 points.

The Colonels went out hard. Lofton said he wanted his four through seven runners in particular to do that to give the team a chance at taking home a trophy for finishing in the top two, but the top runners Konyar (fourth), Ostrander (seventh) and sophomore Alina Kieffer (13th) also found themselves in high positions after passing the 1.25-mile mark.

The Colonels fell back over the remainder of the race, but the strategy paid off with fast times. Konyar (fifth in 18:59) ran 23 seconds faster than at last year’s state meet. Ostrander (15th in 19:46) improved by 2 minutes and 26 seconds. They were followed by Kieffer (24th, 20:17, state meet debut), senior Sarah Moss (40th, 20:49, 45 seconds faster) and sophomore Katelyn Palmer (41st, 20:56, state meet debut) as the scoring runners. Junior Kailtin Combs (64th, 22:04, 15 seconds faster) and sophomore Lauren Thompson (22:37, state meet debut) rounded out the James Wood performances.

“The only thing I can ask out of the girls is to race their best the day that it matters, and I think they did,” Lofton said. “Katelyn Palmer collapsed after the race. Everyone was winded and saying they had never been this sore after a race. As a coach I can’t ask for more than them giving 100 percent, or even more.”

As a result, James Wood finished four points in front of Tuscarora and improved on last year’s seventh-place finish. The Colonels also matched the 2019 team for the best state finish in program history.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” Lofton said.

Moss was the closest finisher to Konyar last year in taking 39th. Saturday was the latest example of how much the Colonels have developed as runners and in terms of desire.

“Last year, just trying to get to states was a big deal,” Moss said. “This year was about how good we could do at states. It was really good to see us grow and keep getting better and better.”

Konyar said she was very proud of the team. Individually, she was still feeling the effects of the illness that bothered her at the Region 4D meet. She wasn’t able to hold off Loudoun Valley senior Ella Peterson in the last half mile and wound up fifth, one spot behind where she finished last year. But she matched her No. 5 seeding, and did quite well as evidenced by her time.

“I just wanted to go out fast and hang on,” Konyar said. “I was still feeling a little sickish, but I still think I did really good.”

Jefferson Forest senior Zoie Lamanna dominated, winning the race by 28 seconds in 17:53 to defend her state title. Jamestown senior Kylie Brooks was second (18:21). Charlottesville sophomore Elaina Pierce (third in 18:31) was the only non-senior who finished ahead of Konyar.

Lofton was pleased with how Konyar battled given her illness, and he also liked what he saw from Ostrander.

“She’s just a really good competitor,” Lofton said. “We have to hold her back at practice sometimes. She lives and breathes [cross country]. It shows in practice and shows in racing.”

After taking 59th at the 2022 state meet, Ostrander finished four seconds ahead of the 16th-place finisher to earn the last state medal.

“I have so many emotions right now,” Ostrander said. “[The award], it’s special. Our coaches really upped the mileage throughout the season and kept it pretty high. Compared to last year, it really helped us. We had a really strong team this year. It’s been really fun.”

Lofton’s assistant coach is Tyler Cox-Philyaw, a former Millbrook star who had three All-State performances in cross country and won four state titles in track before graduating in 2016. Lofton said this might be Cox-Philyaw’s final season if he goes to grad school next year.

“We couldn’t [have had the success we’ve had] without him,” Lofton said. “I bounce so much stuff off of him. He’s more like a co-head coach than an assistant. He’s helped me with the training plan, and it’s going to be hard to replace someone with that knowledge. I coached him at Millbrook, and he’s been running these fast races. I’ve never been that fast. I didn’t run cross country in high school, so having that first-hand experience, I think that’s invaluable for a a coach. I’m going to miss him.”

Lofton said Moss gave a great effort in her final Virginia High School League cross country race (James Wood will be at the Nike Nationals next week). For Moss, it was part of a memorable season.

“I’m glad I’m walking out of here knowing I put everything I could into this race,” she said. “I finished with my best friends, and that’s all I can ask for.”

Handley’s scoring runners were freshman EJ Mullins (44th, 21:04), sophomore Ella Warren (51st, 21:18), freshman Senena Welpott (60th, 21:55), junior Isabel Doran (66th, 23:08) and freshman Audrey Rinker (92nd, 23:43). Senior Bello Balio placed 95th (24:10) and junior Ellie Bessette took 96th (24:29).

Sherando senior Addy Wallin was the area’s only individual girls’ qualifier and placed 59th in 21:52.

For more coverage of Saturday’s meet, see Tuesday’s edition of The Winchester Star.

— Contact Robert Niedzwiecki at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
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