Nine years ago, Madison High School had just arrived on Virginia's seasoned high school rowing scene -- a tough crowd to face as a scrappy club of young athletes with little experience and no name recognition.
But at this year's Virginia Scholastic Rowing Association Championships on Saturday, those veterans chased Madison through nearly every heat, as the team captured the girls' first and second eight titles and a second-place finish for the boys' junior eight.
The girls' first eight edged T.C. Williams and Thomas Jefferson at the regatta at Sandy Run Regional Park with a time of 4:54.1; the second eight clocked in at 5:05.8 to beat TCW by just .1 seconds.
For the boys first eight, St. Albans, Westfield and Yorktown took the top three spots. The Madison boys' junior eight finished between Washington-Lee and Yorktown in 4:40.5 to earn second place.
The finishes earned all three Madison teams a nationals bid.
"Madison's the team to beat," one parent said as a Warhawk boat came to shore to collect medals. "Look at us now."
It's not an easy turnaround for any coach, no less 23-year-old Paul Allbright, who came to the team just three years ago as an assistant coach while still studying at George Mason University.
Allbright, who once rowed for Fairfax High School, said the team came into this year off of a strong rebuilding season. The program had expanded its roster from 55 rowers to 72, which helped add more depth to an already diverse group of boats: There's just one senior on the girls' first eight, and several of its members are underclassmen.
"We kind of surprised ourselves," said Madison junior Caroline Comey, a member of the winning girls' first eight.
Despite the team's growing reputation and success -- the girls' second eight came close to having an undefeated season -- Allbright said he's focusing rowers on setting small goals, so that marking off short-term milestones quickly gives way to achieving longer ones.
"We kinda just took it one race at a time," first eight junior Laura Preston said.
"Coach Paul kept our eyes on the prize," added sophomore Caroline Williams. "He wouldn't even let us try to wander off."
The next prize: A national title at the end of the month.
"We've put so many hours of commitment into rowing," second eight senior Jessica Melton said. "All we can ask is to win nationals now."
For full results, click here.