Downingtown West's Title A Product Of A Strong Foundation

Scott Burns remembers in 2008 when he first took over the reins as head coach at Downingtown West.

The program didn't have a summer running plan or a booster club, and the team was a perennial middle of the district finisher. 38 kids were on the team.

In the decade-plus since being named coach, Burns has helped turn Downingtown West into the gold standard of high school distance running in Pennsylvania. On November 2, the boys' team took hope the PIAA Class AAA state title, the program's second state title in five years and fifth straight year of finishing third or better in the state.

Four years and a full class of runners removed from its dominant 2015 run, D-West is back on top in Pennsylvania.

It's a culture of success that wasn't built overnight for the Whippets. For Burns, the winning tradition really came about by changing the mindset of his athletes and allowing for he calls a "windshield philosophy."

This year on the heels of its state crown, the D-West boys are back squarely on the national radar with a strong chance of qualifying for Nike Cross Nationals at the Northeast regional meet later this November.

But the story of continued boom starts long before this season, and even long before 2015. Now, Downingtown West is firmly established as one of Pennsylvania's top programs and showing no signs of letting up.

Bringing the running love to Downingtown West

Running culture runs deep in Chester County.

A quick glance at the Chester County Running Store's racing calendar will show a number of heavy participation local races.

The Coatesville boys won Nike Team Nationals in 2006. West Chester Henderson High School has been one of the state's premiere programs over the past few decades. Unionville and West Chester East have also enjoyed success, as well. Countless individual and team state champions have hailed from the Ches-Mont League.

Burns, who competed at West Chester University and then coached at West Chester Henderson for a few years before coming to Downingtown West, wanted to see that culture translated to the high school level.

"Downingtown's always had a deep running history," Burns said. "But the high school never really connected with the community and that culture. The first thing we did way back when was develop that and start to put into the cornerstone blocks of our vision about how we saw running as more of a lifestyle than a sport."

When Burns made the shift to D-West in 2008, that would change.

Laying The Foundation

D-West was 17th in District 1 in 2007, the season before Burns took over. While the team wasn't in a bad spot, the new coach knew he had some work to do.

Burns estimates it is about a three to five year process to fully integrate a culture when a new coach takes over a program.

"You have to instill those values and have leaders at the top," Burns said. "That senior class has to go through your entire four-year program. Each year is built on the last. You want good leaders that are models for those younger kids, so then everyone is buying into the success."

Right on schedule, it was in 2012 that Downingtown West turned the corner on the state level. After a 20th place finish in 2011, the Whippets moved up to fifth in the always-deep PIAA District 1 Championship meet, qualifying them for the state meet where they placed ninth. 

Led by a sub-16 senior duo of Joey Steadman and Kenny Leidal, Burns said that 2012 team was the catalyst for the rest of the decade, a stretch that would bring plenty more success to Downingtown.

"They were the first guys that had learned from some great seniors and they 100% the belief that they could do it," Burns said. "In running, a lot of it comes down to confidence---just knowing that you have the ability to compete at that level."

That confidence came from the belief that they could compete on the same level as their league rivals 20 minutes down Route 322.

The statewide juggernaut West Chester Henderson dominated District 1 in that 2012 season and went on to win the AAA state crown on a tiebreaker with 69 points. A year later, it would win its second straight AAA state title, putting just 60 points on the board. 

West was still a little ways off, but creeping closer.

"Our guys used to look at Henderson and say, 'Wow, we can never beat those guys. Those guys are so good. How could we ever reach there?'," Burns said. "Joey (Steadman) and Kenny (Leidal) were the first ones that were like, 'we can compete with those guys. We can be at the level.'"

Becoming a Statewide Power

With the roots stronger secured underneath, Downingtown West kept chugging along. In 2013, after losing Steadman and Leidal to graduation, West placed eighth in the district, just missing a berth in the state meet by 26 points.

But that was a team led by a pair of freshman -- Drew Alansky and Ryan Barton -- and had a spread of just 26 seconds with a varsity team that was comprised of six underclassmen.

A year later in 2014, D-West put itself right in the statewide conversation. It won the Ches-Mont Championships over Henderson and then ran to a fifth place District 1 finish, booking the Whippets a return trip to Hershey for states. There, D-West bested their district finish to take fourth in the state behind a tenth place finish from breakthrough Henry Sappey. To boot, six of the top seven from that squad would be back the next season.

Then the Whippets struck gold in 2015. Adding to a talented and experienced crop of runners were brothers, Jaxson Hoey and Josh Hoey, who transferred from Malvern Prep.

It was a season to remember for D-West which turned in impressive regular season wins at the Carlisle Invitational and then the Eastern States race at the Manhattan Invitational. The Whippets rolled to the District 1 title before putting on a show at the PIAA State Championships.

Jaxson Hoey took second, Josh Hoey was third, and Sappey was sixth as D-West put just 57 points on the board to win by 48 points over second place. A few weeks later, Downingtown West became the first and only team to win NXR Northeast, a dominant 43-point victory that sent the squad to Portland for Nike Cross Nationals.

Despite the departure of both Hoeys and Sappey the next season, Downingtown West showed it wasn't going away. In 2016, the Whippets placed third at the state meet. The remains of that title team, Jake O'Neill and Alansky, led the way as D-West flexed its muscle on the state scene again.

Those heavy losses had an effect, but Burns was able to guide the team with a retool, rather than a rebuild.

"It was proof that what we were doing was working," Burns said of the 2016 team that he felt was still capable of winning the state title. "What we had set up as the framework and having it play out now year-after-year, it's a reaffirmation that we are doing the right things."

Moreover, a look at D-West's resume in the last few years showed the state that this team was here to stay.

"Now, every year we expect to be there," Burns said. "When people talk about Downingtown West, they expect that it's going to be towards the top of the state, so the belief is ingrained in those kids from the beginning."

In 2017 and 2018, D-West also grabbed third place finishes. While Burns' system was clearly working -- creating the state's consistently best program over that stretch -- it left the 2019 team hungry for a shot at that top spot.

None of the members of the current D-West squad were in high school yet when the team last made its state title and NXN run in 2015. All the group had known -- whether on varsity or JV -- was just missing the podium in Hershey.

2019 felt like their time.

The Herd Is Always Looking Ahead

Strong distance runners can come from just about anywhere. The stories of top runners who "came out of nowhere" are endless in the running community. So on the high school level, it makes sense that having a lot of athletes come out for the team would lead to more opportunities to find successful runners.

When Burns took the helm at D-West, the team had 38 runners. 

In ten-plus years since taking over, the Whippets now have 118 runners on the team. He speculates that he will have 130 next season. It's no coincidence that some of the state's top programs -- D-West, LaSalle College, and North Allegheny to name a few -- benefit from large numbers.

Burns calls that large participation "essential."

"Those numbers are a ripple effect of positive energy," he said.

He said he coaches his coaches to understand his language when it comes to training plans and overall program philosophy.

"I, as the head coach, can't talk to every kid every single day," Burns said. "Our team captains and our coaches have to be an extension and they have to get out there and talk to those kids."

Numbers, however, don't mean much if you don't have the culture in place. It starts, according to Burns, with everyone's eyes facing forward.

Burns doesn't allow for a whole lot of peeking behind at Downingtown West. Instead, he employs a "windshield philosophy" to make sure his athletes are always looking at what is ahead of them.

"If everyone in their view has people that they look up to, and if you have dedicated, hardworking, successful people in your windshield, well that's the model that you're going to follow," Burns said of his metaphor.

It what the coach says allows for the revolving door of talent that West has exhibited over the last decade or so. Each of his teams have lost considerable talent from one year to the next to graduation, but there is always a new up-and-comer ready to seize the opportunity.

"The kids buy into our summer endurance program and they say, 'if I can run where those guys were last year, then I can run those times that those guys ran last year,'" Burns added.

That mentality has led the development of the JV runners to be ready to be strong varsity pieces in the future. 

Burns points to Matthew Wagner as one of the next in line.

The sophomore took fourth in unseeded race at the PIAA District 1 Championships, a 1,041 runner field. His time of 17:13 would have netted him a top seven spot on nearly every other team in the district. Instead, Wagner was right near the top of the massive unseeded race.

Burns is confident, through his training plan, that his time will come: "He's gonna be a guy next year that we're going to be talking about," the coach said.

Burns pulled him aside before the season started and laid out his vision for the budding harrier.

"This year is all about training for you," Burns told him. "Your racing is secondary. It's all about you hanging on these runs, hanging in these workouts."

Wagner was challenged this fall to hang on the varsity runners in workouts. Perhaps he was not doing as many intervals or the same distance as those eventual state medalists, but the groundwork was being laid for him to make that leap. Success was in Wagner's windshield.

His 17:13 at districts was nearly a full minute PR for Wagner. It's working.

A varsity manifestation of the philosophy on this year's title team is Ben Datte.

"He's the perfect example of what the program is when you talk about the values that we instill," Burns said of West's top senior this season. "He's the epitome of taking a kid who maybe wasn't born with as much natural talent as some other guys, but just creates his own talent through hard work."

Datte is the lone varsity holdover from West's 2017 team still with the squad this season. After placing 137th at states as a sophomore, he moved up to 57th last year. This season, Datte, who was 19th in District 1, placed 25th earning the final state medal in AAA.

Burns credits Datte's hard work and dedication to the plan for his progression. In turn, he's been the ideal model for the younger runners on the team, like Wagner.

"(Talent) can be a skill that you develop, and Ben does a phenomenal job of illustrating that to our other guys," Burns said.

Golden Again In Hershey

The motivation was easy to spot with Downingtown West this fall. After three straight third place team finishes, a spot off the top two team podium places, the Whippets were hungry to get back to the top of Pennsylvania in 2019.

"I came here twice and went home empty-handed twice," Datte said after the state meet. "So we were looking to come home with something this year."

D-West showed its talent early on, earning team titles at the off-format Oakbourne Relays and Unionville Two Mile Bash.

At the team's 5K opener at the Carlisle Invitational, D-West truly showed the state and the nation what it was capable of. The Whippets scored just 84 points in the loaded 36-team field to win by a jaw-dropping 159 points over second place. Top runner Aiden Barnhill asserted himself as one of the state's best with a close second place finish in a big PR and Declan Rymer, Datte, and Holden Betz all claimed top 20 finishes.

A few weeks later, D-West took fourth at the Manhattan Invitational in the Eastern States race that featured most of the northeast region's top teams. But main AAA rival LaSalle College, the 2017 state champs and 2018 runners-up, were second in that field.

After rolling to a third straight District 1 crown, the rematch with LaSalle and a matchup with the defending state champions from North Allegheny was set for Hershey. It would be a showdown between the state's top programs of the last few years.

Burns instructed his team to go out on the conservative side. The Hershey hills in the middle of the Parkview Course can wear down a runner. A look at the final results shows that many of the state medalists were rewarded by taking it easy early on.

"We crunched some data and noticed some of the guys on our team were better set up if they sat back a little bit and moved in the latter parts of the race," Burns said.

The D-West boys listened. But at the mile, LaSalle held a 52-86 advantage on the Whippets.

Rymer speculated he was in about 30th at the mile: "The plan was just stay steady on the uphills and kill the downhills and keep rolling," he said.

It turned out to be a big middle mile for the West boys, which erased that deficit and overtook their main rival in the two mile team scores 62-72. Of course, the job wasn't done yet.

But D-West remained strong in the final mile and held on to the finish. The Whippets put up 65 points to by 19 over second place LaSalle. The defending champions from North Allegheny were third with 112.

Barnhill led the way with a sixth place overall finish in 16:06. Rymer moved up well and placed 12th, running a time of 16:17 in his state meet debut. Datte took 25th in 16:29, a few tenths ahead of his 26th place teammates Betz, who just missed a state medal.

The biggest difference maker, though, had to be fifth runner Caelan Sims, who posted the best race of his career to take 52nd. Looking at the numbers prior to the state meet, one may have surmised that while LaSalle and D-West were similar squads, the Explorers held the depth advantage on the backend of varsity.

Sims erased that theory and ran a time of 16:49, less than 12 seconds off his time from a week prior on the flat Lehigh course.

"He's tenacious," Burns said of his fifth guy. "What's he's able to do when the spikes come on is pretty special. He wanted to go out there and prove to himself that, 'I'm able to close this deal for this team.'"

Back at Manhattan, Burns noticed the strength of those last three varsity runners: "One of the biggest boosts was seeing that Sims, (Ryan) Straub and (Jack) Cappello weren't really that far back," he said.

Ultimately that race, despite finishing fourth to LaSalle's second, gave West the confidence in its depth heading into the stretch run of the season.

A Group That Wouldn't Be Denied

A peak at the 2018 state meet results saw Downingtown West losing some more talented seniors. Another good retooling into the next season and it looked like D-West was in good position to be another third place state team.

But that simply wasn't going to be enough for this year's group.

"These guys never doubted themselves," Burns said.

Last track season saw Rymer, who didn't crack the varsity XC squad in 2018 as a sophomore, make big strides. He ran 9:30 for 3,200 meters on the track, but placed sixth at the District 1 Championships, just missing a spot in the state meet. The junior was motivated coming into the fall.

"He got a chip on his shoulder because he was the sixth (district) finisher in the 3,200," Burns said. "He went into the summer on a mission that he was not going to be anything less than amazing."

It resulted in a 12th place state meet finish on Rymer's first time on Hershey.

After taking 62nd at states last year as a sophomore, Barnhill transformed into one of the state's most formidable threats up front this fall. It didn't come by accident.

"He's incredibly dedicated to the process," Burns said. "He changed his diet. He worked on his core and prehab routines. He's taking care of his body to ensure that he can compete at a high level. Then the pieces start to fall into place."

"We had a good season last year with Payton Sewall, Isaac (Valderrabano), and Joseph (Chamoun). I was there training with those guys," Barnhill said after his breakthrough second place finish at the Carlisle Invitational. "It's my turn now and I'm ready."

Barnhill's premonition proved to be right on as he was sixth at the state meet and will surely be one of the top state title threats in the fall of 2020.

For Betz, his sophomore season was mostly spent on the JV squad before cracking into varsity just in time for the state meet, as just one of two tenth graders along with Barnhill toeing the line at Hershey. He placed 105th. 

This season as a junior, he was the model of consistency. Betz was 16th at Carlisle, 17th at districts, and then 26th at states. No one will be hungrier to get on the individual medal stand next fall than Betz.

But at the center of it all was Datte. While Barnhill, Rymer, and Betz will all return next year, this was the senior's last go of it in the high school ranks.

"Datte set the compass for those guys," Burns said. "This was his third state championship meet. He had run progressively better year. He had been there and he was that calming force, like 'this is what we're capable of.'"

Turns out, they were capable of quite a lot.

Onward To Bowdoin

Burns doesn't have a special formula (or so he says) when it comes to planning two peaks in a season.

With the state meet in early November and Nike Cross Regionals (NXR) in late November, there's a big three week gap in between big meets where the Whippets will need to be at their best.

"I think you peak for that state meet -- you get after that state meet and go for the win," Burns said. "If you're lucky enough to be in the conversation for NXR, you plan the training from there accordingly."

Even during West's dominant 2015 run, Burns said he went all-in for the state meet, where they won by a comfortable 48 points.

After the win at Hershey, it was a quick back-to-work for the Whippets, though.

"These guys didn't take that big of a break," Burns said. "I gave a few guys 3 or 4 days off at most, just to mentally reset themselves. Our taper is not huge anyway, so we don't really drop mileage too much, so it's a pretty easy transition."

D-West ran at the Warrior Classic, a 3200 meter tune-up at Henderson last week to dust some racing rust off.

It will certainly be a showdown in Wappinger's Falls, New York on November 30 for NXN at Bowdoin Park.

October 12's Manhattan Invitational at Van Cortlandt Park provided a fairly good preview for what's to come at NXR with many of the region's top teams duking it out. La Salle Academy from Rhode Island earned a decisive victory by 66 points over second place LaSalle College of PA.

New Jersey powerhouse Christian Brothers Academy, the defending regional champions, was third and Downingtown West was fourth, followed by NJ's West Windsor Plainsboro North in fifth. Rhode Island's Bishop Hendricken was seventh, but that squad was second at NXR last year.

Not much separated those second through seventh place teams at Manhattan.

The top two automatically qualify for Nike Cross Nationals, set for a week later in Portland, Oregon. There's a chance to get a "wildcard" spot for third and fourth place teams. Considering the depth of the northeast region, it's certainly a possibly that a third place squad could earn a wildcard spot, but there's no guarantee. 

"We're going to bring our all," Barnhill said. "I think we'll be in pretty good shape."

Burns said his team noticed the state meet point total similarities between the 2015 D-West team and the 2019 squad. In 2015, those regional champions scored 57 at states, while this year's team put up 65. While no full-proof, total points can be a decent indication of overall team strength from one year to the next.

It's a group that's ready for the challenge of the regional meet. Their eyes, as they are taught, are looking forward. In some time, though, they may break that rule.

"They're excited about the state meet and I think in a couple months they'll look back on that with great fondness," Burns added. "But they've also got a goal in mind that they're going to make it out to nationals."