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As high school athletes look forward to the start of their district slate and coaches’ heads begin to dance with playoff thoughts, it’s time for us to take a moment to look backward.

The year 2012 provided local sports fans with memories that, taken together, brought out every kind of emotion. Time flowed from field hockey dominance to gridiron surprises; from a basketball coach’s despair to a little girl’s recovery; from a life-altering accident to a resilient climb toward normalcy.

It was a year full of stories that won’t soon be forgotten. Here are some of our favorites.

Oakton swim teams glide to region titles

Northern Virginia offers plenty of high schools full of talented swimmers, but no one could keep up with Oakton in February. The Cougars took complete control of the pool at the Northern Region championships, riding stellar performances by the dynamic Hu siblings to boys and girls titles at Oak Marr Rec Center.

Sophomore Janet Hu earned new regional records in the 100-yard backstroke and 100-yard freestyle events to help the Oakton girls cruise to a 245-190 victory over second-place West Potomac. Her brother, Philip, a junior, provided the Cougars with critical points on the boys’ side, including a second-place finish in the 100-yard backstroke.

Oakton’s trophies didn’t just come from a few outstanding individual feats, though. It was a true team effort, particularly for a boys team that didn’t capture a first-place finish in any individual event until the last race of the meet.

“Winning an event gets you 20 points,” Oakton swim coach Parker Ramsdell said. “But if we can end up with 40 or more points because all of our guys placed, I’ll take that. Getting points like that in multiple events is remarkable.”

Westfield claims a new trophy

Westfield’s 62-49 win against Edison on Feb. 27 awarded it the school’s first-ever boys basketball Northern Region title. At the height of his outstanding play all season long, 6-foot-11 senior Zach Elcano led the Bulldogs with 17 points to go with championship MVP honors that night.

Along with Quentin Basil, Julius Rosa and Mark Gibson, Elcano formed part of a group of seniors that came a long way from a 4-15 record during their sophomore year.

“[The 2009-10 season] was not pretty,” Westfield basketball coach Doug Ewell said after the game. “We were in every game; we just couldn’t overcome some things. We struggled, but we were always coming up short. Tonight, we finished.”

`Oakton girls basketball reaches perfection

After falling to Princess Anne High in the state tournament two of the previous three years, the Oakton girls basketball team finally vanquished its nemesis, 58-39, in the state championship game on Mar. 9. The win completed a perfect 31-0 season that made Oakton the first girls basketball team from the Northern Region since 1999 to earn the title of Virginia AAA champion.

It was Oakton’s first-ever girls basketball state title, as well as the first for their coach, Fred Priester, who had never achieved the feat in 28 years of coaching. That accomplishment couldn’t have materialized without seniors Caroline and Katherine Coyer, the dominant twins that finished their high school careers with a 110-5 record.

“I was crying tears of joy going into the locker room,” said Caroline, who earned Gatorade’s Virginia Player of the Year honors. “This win is for us, it’s for coach Priester and part of it is for Oakton and all the players who have strived to win that state championship and came close.”

Coach fights for daughter’s life

On the day of his team’s final regular season basketball game, Langley boys basketball coach Travis Hess found out that his one-year-old daughter, Gianna, was very sick. Less than two weeks later, he learned that Gianna had a rare form of childhood cancer known as hepatoblastoma, which had advanced to Stage Four.

While Hess and his wife, Suzanne, underwent frequent trips to the Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia for Gianna’s chemotherapy treatments, the Langley and Great Falls communities set out to do whatever they could to help. With support from “Go 4 the Goal,” an organization aimed at fighting pediatric cancer, students and parents began selling neon-green shoelaces, wristbands and T-shirts to raise money and heighten awareness of childhood cancer.

They reinvigorated those efforts on Dec. 14, when 30 schools around the area had their basketball teams wear those shoelaces in support of the Hess family. It was on that day that Hess received a call from a doctor confirming that Gianna was cancer-free.

That evening’s fundraising efforts raised $7,000, which Travis Hess donated to the Children’s Hospital that he credits with saving his daughter’s life.

“Obviously it means a lot to me, the people that participated and just to see the men’s and women’s coaches come together in support of a fellow coach is a really cool thing,” Hess said.

Langley girls tennis finishes undefeated

Facing a Mills Godwin team that was making its VHSL-record 11th straight state championship appearance, the undefeated Langley girls tennis squad ran into its first real test in its season-ending match on June 3. The Saxons emerged from Newport News with a 5-3 victory, handing them their first state title since 1992.

After splitting the six singles matches, 3-3, Langley needed to win two of their three doubles matches to win the match. Jenny Liu and McKenzie Malpede’s three-set win gave the Northern Region champions the fifth point they needed to complete their perfect 20-0 season.

Lake Braddock baseball captures first title

The Lake Braddock baseball team defeated Eastern Region champion Floyd Kellam, 4-0, to win the Virginia AAA championship on June 9. Even after a successful string of six Northern Region titles, the win gave the Bruins their first-ever state crown.

"At the beginning of the year, I knew we had solid talent,” Lake Braddock coach Jody Rutherford said. “But you never know how that's going to unfold until you get into it."

Lake Braddock (26-3) ended Kellam’s 17-game winning streak on the wings of junior Thomas Rodgers’s shutout performance on the mound. In addition to striking out 10 batters on the day, the Georgia-recruit opened the scoring in the third inning with his second home run blast of the year.

Great Falls Little League goes deep

Kyle Novak’s last pitch against state competition was a good one. Facing elimination in extra innings, the 12-year-old closer hurled one right down the middle of the plate to secure the Great Falls All-Stars a third out and a nail-biting 4-3 state championship victory against the Atlee All-Stars.

The newly crowned Virginia All-Stars then headed down to Warner Robins, Ga., where they swept pool play competition of the Southeast Regional tournament before losing to the Georgia All-Stars, 5-1, in the semifinal. The loss ended a blistering run that saw the District 4 champions outscore their previous 12 opponents by a 139-23 margin and come within two games of a Little League World Series berth.

Northern Region displays cross-country dominance

Powered by senior Sean McGorty’s record-setting 14 minute 47 second time on Great Meadow’s 5-kilometer course, the Chantilly boys cross-country team claimed its first-ever Virginia AAA title at the state meet in November. McGorty’s time was 42 seconds clear of the second-place runner, Lake Braddock senior Nick Tuck. The Chargers’ No. 2 runner, Logan Miller, finished in third place to put the Northern Region champions 15 points clear of second-place Midlothian and secure an undefeated season against state competition.

Lake Braddock senior Sophie Chase captured her second straight individual state title, beating the course record she set last year by nine seconds to give her team its first state crown since 2009. Junior Hannah Christen followed Chase with a third place for the Bruins.

“This time last year I was walking home alone with Hannah, and even though I had won and we both had really great races, it didn’t mean as much as it does now. Walking away as a senior from this and kind of handing it off to the juniors next year, it’s unbelievable, and I know they’re going to continue the success and the tradition that we’ve had.”

Oakton sophomore Allie Klimkiewicz finished in seventh to help her team grab third place, while West Springfield junior Caroline Alcorta crossed the line second to give the Spartans fourth place. The top three finishers in both the boys and girls races all hailed from the Northern Region; moreover, seven of the top 10 girls teams came from the Northern Region.

Freshman golfer sets new standard

In a confounding sport that awards patience and experience, Thomas Jefferson freshman Nathan Chuwait proved this year that success on the golf course has nothing to do with age. The 14-year-old became the youngest golfer ever to win the Northern Region title when he fired a 2-under 69 in the rain-shortened, 18-hole tournament at Twin Lakes Golf Course in October.

Likely the only thing Chuwait struggled with that day was squeezing that trophy into a crowded case that reflects a golfer who won nearly every tournament he entered during his first high school season. The regional victory brought Chuwait full circle, since he beat out 103 other golfers in his first-ever high school tournament at the Atomic Invitational two months earlier with scores of 70-71 at Twin Lakes.

Sophomore teammate Julie Luo fit the script with a second-place finish at regionals, firing a 1-under-par 70.

“They have enthusiasm like you wouldn’t believe,” Jefferson coach John Myers said after the regional tournament. “They were just charging out of the gates. They were confident, they were moving quickly on the course. ... They were just on fire.”

Balenger crashes homecoming party

Lake Braddock senior baseball player Nick Balenger is training hard this winter, but it’s not with the aim of helping his team defend its state title. Ever since the body surfing accident that paralyzed his lower body on July 25, Balenger has endured grueling physical therapy with the aim of one day walking again.

Thanks to a relentless work ethic, Balenger has been defying doctors’ expectations time and again at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in Northwest Washington, D.C., where the 17-year-old has already learned to walk using a walker. His speedy progress on the road to recovery led him to come out of the hospital on Oct. 12 to make Lake Braddock’s homecoming football game one that its students wouldn’t soon forget.

Balenger’s first return to school grounds coincided with a halftime ceremony that honored him and his teammates for winning the school’s first-ever state championship in June. More than the ring ceremony, though, attendees will remember when vocal throngs of students as they waved “Nick Nation” signs and Balenger briefly rose from his wheelchair to pump his fist in the air.

“I was on cloud nine when I stood up to get that ring,” Balenger said. “That was one of the best nights of my life.”

Westfield field hockey makes its mark

The Westfield field hockey squad put forth one of the most dominant seasons in recent memory, crushing every local opponent it faced this year en route to a 20-3 record. On their way to a fifth straight Concorde title and an eventual loss against Mountain View in the state quarterfinals, the Bulldogs outscored regional competition by a ridiculous 101-4 margin.

More importantly, though, they won their first Northern Region championship since 2006, earning a 4-1 win against South County, the very team that beat them in the region final the previous year.

“We didn’t want to end this season like we did last year with only one title,” said senior midfielder Meghan Winesett, who was named the Northern Region Player of the Year for the second time in a row. “We knew we could get two at least and shoot for a third. So it’s a lot easier to get over [the state quarterfinal loss] having that under our belts.”

Oakton football makes surprise playoff run

By the end of a bruising regular season that saw the Cougars lose their last four games, few expected Oakton to make any noise in the Northern Region playoffs. But after squeaking into the playoffs as a seven-seed, Oakton’s seniors decided they wouldn’t end their high school football careers in shame.

The Cougars rolled past their next three opponents to claim their school’s sixth Northern Region crown in the last 15 years, its first since 2008. Oakton made its dramatic postseason run by defeating three favored squads that its seniors had never beaten before — Lake Braddock, Centreville and Westfield.

“Coach [Jason Rowley] preaches that we don’t just think that we can win; we know that we can win,” Oakton senior quarterback Kyle Downer said after his team’s 23-16 upset over Westfield in the region title game. “We really took a step back after four losses, and we looked at ourselves. We asked where we could take it. We decided to take it as far as possible.”