A Mother's Wish

On November 11, 2011, local sports history was made. For the first time in over 100 years of the school’s history, a girls team from Peninsula Catholic High School won a state title, as the cross-country team defeated 22 other teams to win the Division 2 section at the Virginia Independent Schools meet at Woodberry Forest in Orange. For the runners and the school, it was a proud moment in the sun, a chance to bond and reflect on the hard work required to achieve such a lofty accomplishment. In a sense, on that serene fall day, holding the first place trophy in the winners circle amid the hilly terrain of central Virginia, a group of athletes could look back down the road that led them to the championship.

If only someone knew how rocky and bumpy that road was.

Coach Susan Bender knew. Bender, a Yorktown native, is in her 17th year as the girls cross-country coach at Peninsula Catholic. Her journey down that road started soon after the completion of school last June as she tried to cobble together a group of runners for summer workouts. The numbers were low and the coach was concerned by the prospect of not having a well-trained team put together in time for the team’s first meet in late August. With worry on her mind, Bender turned to her influence and guiding light, her mother Catharine.

Mom’s initial response was short and to the point. “Don’t worry, they’ll come.”

Catharine spoke with experience on her side. Three days after graduating from York High School in June of 1958, she had gone to work for York County. After 53 years, Mrs. Bender still worked for the county, most recently as the Chief Deputy Circuit Court Clerk. In fact, she was employed by York County until July 15, 2011.

That was the day she passed on.

In spite of the grief that comes from losing someone so close, Bender remembered her mother’s words which were now ingrained in her mind. “I used a lot of what my Mom said and she was right…. it worked!”

The coach found that she was not alone during the time of caring for her mother. On days when she had to miss workouts, former runners, such as Megan Foley, came to practice to put the team through its paces. Team co-captains Celia Pincus and Jessica Armstrong took on added responsibilities. Looking back at the reasons for her team’s successful season, Bender said, “the girls have always been close knit and have always supported each other.” Certainly, a good part of this bond was developed during long distance runs in the sweltering heat of June and July, as the team forged ahead without their leader, an avid road racer who is known to “hit the trails” with her team.

In her own moment of reflection, Coach Bender, who is also an elementary school teacher at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic School in Newport News, drew on her religious background while giving thanks. “We praise God for our wins and losses. Our blessing came from God and our girls knew where their success came from.”

Somehow, it’s easy to imagine that there was a particularly bright light shining over the Peninsula on the evening of November 11th,  a light beaming from a star named “Mother’s Wish.”