An Era Ends At Loudoun Valley, And A New One Begins

* Marc Hunter coaches a Loudoun Valley relay team in 2018

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

- - - 

"It's a daunting position to take over. With it comes a lot of really high expectations. That's a challenge. And I think, I have to remind myself that I'm not taking over the Hunter's accomplishments." -- Kevin Shirk

An era has ended at Loudoun Valley, and a new one has begun. 

That may come as a shock to some, as Marc and Joan Hunter have completely reshaped the running programs at the Group 4 Virginia school over the last eight years, although change was a near certainty when Joan became the new head coach of the Tinman Elite recently.  

In truth, though, the shakeup has been an open secret in Virginia for some time. The Hunters even held an informal party on May 26 with former Vikings athletes. In December, the Hunters stepped away for the indoor season

Over their tenure, the Hunters spearheaded an incredible tenure that included 18 state titles in Virginia across three sports -- cross country and indoor and outdoor track and field -- along with a Foot Locker Nationals champion in 2015 (Drew Hunter), a total of 10 national individual champions, and two national cross country titles in 2017 and 2018. 

It's not debatable: The Hunters changed Loudoun Valley's cross country and track and field programs for the better. But as is the case with high school sports, coaching careers can sometimes be fleeting. In June, the Hunters made their departure from the program they completely overhauled official.

* Kevin Shirk is Loudoun Valley's new cross country and track and field coach

- - - 

From an administration side, though, Loudoun Valley didn't wait long to find its replacement. The Vikings hired former Millbrook (VA) High School coach Kevin Shirk on June 12.

Shirk comes to the school with previous success at the Group 4 school, and previously fielded a state third-place girls team and a boys individual runner-up.

"It's a daunting position to take over," Shirk said of his hiring recently. "With it comes a lot of really high expectations. That's a challenge. And I think, I have to remind myself that I'm not taking over the Hunter's accomplishments." 

What's fitting, though, is that the Hunters didn't leave right away. They finished out their tenure through the end of the season -- which took place on June 19 at the VHSL Group 4 Track and Field Championships. 

When you consider the Hunter's initial plan -- to coach a few years before handing it off -- it shouldn't surprise you that they stayed longer than anticipated. It was building a winning culture in the first place that kept them coming back for more. 

"We were reluctant coaches to begin with," Marc said recently. "But what we saw was that there was something there. These kids needed something. We had to do something." 

A little history might help. Loudoun Valley wasn't a powerhouse when the Hunters arrived; that's putting it lightly. It only became that over the last few seasons. 

What the Hunters found were willing athletes ready to work, a supportive administration and all-hands-on-deck parents. Both Marc had Joan knew how to put the pieces together from there. 

Both had plenty of experience. Marc was a two-time top five finisher at the NCAA Cross Country Championships over his time Cleveland State, ran for two World Cross Country Teams and was an Olympic Trials qualifier in 1980. Following his own career, he jumped into coaching and led Olympic Trials qualifying marathoners before starting his high school career at Fairfax. 

Joan ran at the University of Virginia and West Virginia before becoming an elite-masters level runner and then a coach. She took over Madison in the 90s. 

"I told those guys afterward, 'If you stick together, you can go to NXN. At the time, I only half believed it. But the goal was to get them to invest and to think big. I wanted our kids to think big." -- Marc Hunter

The pair met while they were both coaching, and eventually they married and came to work together at South Lakes during Alan Webb's career. When the pair had children they took off their coaching careers, and then came back when the kids started to come of age. 

Their son, Drew, broke a number of national records, won a Foot Locker Nationals championship in 2015, broke four minutes in the mile and turned pro at 18, signing with adidas. He was the first post-2000 superstar in high school running.

And then something special happened. Loudoun Valley became a powerhouse. They might have even been the first 'Super Team.'

The Vikings won Nike Cross Nationals titles in 2017 and 2018 -- in one of the most dominant performances ever -- and then set national records in the DMR and 4xMile in 2019. 

"I remember a race in late August back in 2017," Marc said. "Our team were in a freshmen race and we went something like 1-2-5 in the race. It was a 40-team meet. 

"I told those guys afterward, 'If you stick together, you can go to NXN. At the time, I only half believed it. But the goal was to get them to invest and to think big. I wanted our kids to think big." 

By the end of their tenure, one in every 10 students walking inside the Loudoun Valley halls were on the track and field or cross country programs. The Hunters routinely had teams of over 100 kids. Over eight years, Loudoun Valley's cross country and track and field programs sent 42 athletes to college and 35 ran at the Division I level at the NCAA. 

Even more shocking, Loudoun Valley's entire 'B' team in cross country in 2018 went Division I. All 14 athlete from that year went to colleges with the chance to perform at the Division I level. 

And yet, Marc tells of another story. 

"Every single kid who went into our program got better," he said. "We had a whole host of kids who came in and never saw a varsity meet. But they wanted to run at Loudoun Valley.

"These brothers from Georgia wanted to run for Loudoun Valley. Their dad was military. They did their research and moved in and both ran cross country and track. At best they were 4:50 milers and 10:50 runners for two-miles. But they improved." 

Admittedly, Shirk understands all of this history. 

* Loudoun Valley in a DMR in 2018 at The VA Showcase

- - - 

He isn't trying to inherit it as much as he's striving to build off of it and, potentially some day, repeat it. 

Loudoun Valley's support system is strong, he says. Currently, he has about 40 athletes currently training over the offseason and maybe 80 boys and girls who are interested in joining the cross country teams over the fall. 

But he isn't changing things just yet. 

"It will be a gradual process," he said. "I haven't instilled any of my own processes yet. I talked a lot to Marc and Joan when I was first hired. And we went back and forth and they shared ideas with me. 

"I went in not wanting to change a single thing for awhile. Let there be normalcy. Get used to a new face and new training locations and philosophies." 

Eventually, things will have to change. While the Hunters valued some 1K workouts at Critical Velocity pace, Shirk said, he might mix things up with different approaches. 

What Shirk will continue to embrace, however, is the culture the Hunters created. 

"If you ask me about my goals, it's to win two state championships," Shirk said. 

"On the tentative meet schedule, I have a trip to NXN on it," he said. "So that's definitely the goal. That won't change in terms of what we want to accomplish."