Novice DeMatha runner wins WCAC cross country championship
BY CHRIS MCMANES
Chase Lopez went from having never competed in cross country to winning the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference (WCAC) individual championship. It’s a compelling story, particularly when you consider that the DeMatha senior just picked up the sport in August.
On Oct. 28, Lopez ran the 3.1-mile (5K) course at Kenilworth Park in Northeast Washington in 16:07 to capture the WCAC title. He is the first Stag in 14 years to win the prestigious race. His coach, Cory Puffett, won it three times (2007-09).
Lopez held off Gonzaga junior William Buckley by two seconds. Anthony Sarro, Buckley’s sophomore teammate, came in third (16:26).
“It certainly takes a level of natural talent to win the championship,” Puffett said, “but it was difficult when you have so many really strong runners in the conference.” Puffett went on to say that this has been one of the strongest years the WCAC has had in terms of elite individual athletes.
“Particularly Sarro and Buckley,” Puffett clarified. “They have been excellent all year. So, for Chase to do what he did, this year of all years, is remarkable. It definitely shows the level of dedication he had throughout the season.”
Gonzaga won the team championship (31 points). The Heights was second (68) and DeMatha third (99).
Lopez came to DeMatha as a soccer player, and played a year on the freshman team and two on JV. He joined Buddy Crutchfield’s indoor track team in January, primarily to improve his speed and stamina for soccer. He said Stags distance coach Harry Allen recognized his running ability.
“It was kind of weird because as soon as I joined track, [Allen] said, ‘You’re really good at track. I can get you to where you need to be to run in college,’” Lopez said. “He was like, ‘I don’t recommend you do soccer unless you really want to.’”
Lopez continued with DeMatha’s outdoor track team and ran in 800-, 1600- and 3,200-meter races. In August, instead of continuing his career in soccer – a sport he had played throughout his youth – he joined the cross country team. The Glenn Dale resident said it was tough leaving behind the sport most of the world knows as football.
“Yes, because I’ve been doing it most of my life,” he said.
In Puffett, Lopez benefitted by learning from the most accomplished cross country athlete in school history. In 2022, Puffett guided the Stags to the WCAC championship and was elected to the DeMatha Hall of Fame.
“He really pushed me,” Lopez said. “His practices started off easy and had me thinking like this could be a breeze. And then every week it got more challenging. Instead of doing a 30-minute run, we’re hopping up to a good 80-minute run at moderate pace. And I’m like, OK, I’ve got to take this seriously.”
Success came gradually for Lopez. In his first race, Sept. 2 in Leesburg, Va., he finished 28th in 18:24.8. On Sept. 30, he ran a team-best 16:40.
Two weeks later, he and senior Sayid Shakur ran in the MileStat.com XC Invitational in Mechanicsville, Va. Competing against some of the top runners on the East Coast, they both set personal records: Lopez in 15:51, Shakur in 16:03.
Gonzaga’s Sarro was eight seconds faster than Lopez; Buckley was a second better.
Sprint to glory
At the WCAC Championships, Lopez and Buckley eventually broke away from the pack. With approximately 400 meters to go, Puffett told Lopez he could outsprint Buckley to the finish, thinking Lopez would make his kick with about 100 meters remaining.
Instead, Lopez took off right away.
“He had the confidence to go then,” Puffett said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m not playing around with him right now. I’m just going to go.’ He made a decisive move, and while Buckley was able to keep it to a two-second gap, just looking at his face I could tell that he knew there was nothing he could do to reel Chase back in. Chase was gone.”
Lopez is planning to run cross country in college. The principle schools he’s considering right now are Indiana Tech, Howard, Marymount, Bowie State and Fairleigh-Dickinson. He and Shakur are also heading to Cary, N.C., on Nov. 19 to compete in the Nike Cross Regionals Southeast.
“I feel like there’s so much more I can accomplish in college because I’m all new to this,” Lopez said. “So, give me another year, and my times will drop even more.”
Chris McManes reports on DeMatha sports for the Hyattsville Life & Times.