In the summer of 2015, I began a quest to document every Montgomery County cross country championship meet. My assumption from the beginning was that eventually I would come across the first county championship meet and the format of the first meet would be just like I've always known it to be. My research took me down an unexpected path when I discovered that the term "county meet" was at times used interchangeably with the state-qualifying district meets. I also learned that the beginnings of the county championship meet are tied to the evolution of girls in high school running in our county.
What is a county championship meet? From the mid-1980's and thereafter, the answer is obvious: it is the meet where every team in the county competes for bragging rights to secure a county ranking for the year, or better yet...a county championship title. Presently, the county championship is a meet that coaches and athletes circle on their calendars every year. It is a celebration of the best young runners in our community, regardless of school size or classification.
That definition of a county championship was not the definition known to coaches and athletes in the early 70's. In the early-to-mid 70's, the term "county meet" referred to the district meet. The district meets were the qualifying races for the state championship meet. The districts were divided into classifications: "AA" (largest), "A", "B", and "C" (smallest). Sometimes, the smaller classifications were combined into "BC" or "ABC" races. These district meets consisted of only Montgomery County schools and therefore the combination of district races was also referred to as the county championship meet. Multiple county champions were named each year - one for each classification. Those early county champions prior to 1977 were more akin to today's regional champions.
The present day notion of a "classless" county championship meet was in a sense born out of the evolution of women in running. Dottie Rowe from Gaithersburg High School was the first female high school runner in Montgomery County. In 1971, Rowe petitioned to run on the boys cross country team at her school. After initially being denied, that ruling was overturned and she ran with the boys team for the season. This paved the way for girls cross country in Montgomery County. (Williams, 1977)
By 1973, there were enough female runners in Montgomery County that some schools could field complete girls teams with five or more girls. These teams could compete in dual meets and invitationals, but cross country was not yet an official sport sanctioned by the MPSSAA for girls. Because there were no state championship races for girls, there were also no district meets for girls and the season might have ended abruptly after the last scheduled invitational meet. Instead of allowing this to happen, B-CC High School head coach Kerry Ward organized the first county championship meet for girls, a 2.3 mile hilly run at Lake Needwood. The inaugural race was completed by 37 girls. B-CC won that first team title behind individual champion Gale Morse (13:46). Whitman (2nd), Gaithersburg (3rd), and Springbrook (4th) were the other complete teams. Some of the participants nicknamed the meet the "Ms. Cross Country Championship" as an effort to draw attention to the fact that girls were running cross country. (Boss, 1973)
Under leadership of coach Greg Dunston, Woodward High School took over ownership of the girls county championship cross country meet in 1974 before finally in 1975 cross country became an officially sanctioned sport for girls in Maryland. Due to low statewide participation, there would be only one state championship race for girls with all classifications combined into one (as opposed to four boys' classifications). The girls then had a state-qualifying district race just like the boys, and because all classifications were combined into one, the district race for girls was exactly the same as the previous two county championship meets for girls.
In 1976, the state and district levels divided girls into two classifications based on school size, "AA" and "ABC." This ended the "classless" county championship race in Montgomery County, but one coach kept the idea alive. Coach Allan Bellman of Kennedy High School pushed for a true county championship meet, and his idea was realized with all teams combined into a single race in a new county championship meet in 1977.
Unfortunately, the new championship meet was met with resistance from coaches who believed that it served no purpose and added one too many meets into the season schedule. Some coaches initially viewed the meet as a burden because it was scheduled so closely to the truly important state-qualifying meets. Many county teams opted not to attend the first several county championship meets, or they simply sent their junior varisty squads. By 1981, the Montgomery Journal described the county meet attendance as "dismal." (Niewiaroski, 1981, Oct. 30)
In 1981, attendance at the county championship meet became mandatory, but some teams still sent their JV squads (Niewiaroski, 1981, Nov. 2). Bellman continued to champion the meet despite the resistance. In 1985, he moved the meet to Calverton-Fairland Park closer to his school (Kennedy HS) and when he took the coaching job at newly-opened Watkins Mill High School, the meet followed him there, too.
Maybe some coaches' arms had to be twisted, or maybe the meet simply gained traction due to the awards, the media recognition, the bragging rights or simply the spirit of the competition. By the mid 1980's, the county championship meet was an annual tradition and the county crowns became coveted prizes for the elite athletes and teams.
For the purposes of this page, I consider the 1973 championship for girls as the first Montgomery County championship meet. The first true Montgomery County Championship Meet with boys and girls was in 1977 and I do not consider the state-qualifying district meets to be equivalent to the XC county championship meets as they have existed since 1977. This may not be universally agreed on for those who lived and experienced the earlier versions of the county meet, but now you understand why it is difficult to pinpoint the exact beginnings of the Montgomery County XC championship meet.
Boss, R. (1973, November 15). B-CC Girls Fittingly Sweep Ms X-Country. Montgomery County Sentinel, p. A13.
Niewiaroski, D. (1981, October 30). County Cross Country Meet Expects 100% Participation. Montgomery Journal, p. A13.
Niewiaroski, D. (1981, November 2). Peary Boys Run Past Seneca in County Meet. Montgomery Journal, p. B1.
Williams, K. (1977, November 4). Girls Have Come a Long Way in Cross Country. Montgomery Journal, p. C1, C3.