Colorado dreamin' at NXR-SW

For several of Colorado’s cross country programs, Saturday brings the moment of truth.
The rules of the game are relatively simple. Place in the top two teams and you’ve earned yourself a nice little trip to Portland in two weeks with the promise of racing against the nation’s very best. Place third or fourth and you’ve earned another week of practice and sitting on pins and needles as you await the selection of the four at-large teams following the completion of all Nike Regionals.
Colorado is very much alive in the hunt for trips to Portland. Let’s take a closer look, starting with the girls teams.
You won’t find much argument that Monarch and Fort Collins come out of the state meet as Colorado’s two teams with the best shot at advancing to Portland. Last year, they finished fifth and sixth at NXN, with a scant point separating the two.
Both Monarch and Fort Collins lost some key pieces to graduation, but both teams brought back several important pieces as well. The most important thing they brought back, however, may have been the flame.
So, what keeps Fort Collins and Monarch from advancing to NXN again this year? 
Three major obstacles stand in their way—two from Utah and one from Arizona.
The Utah obstacles go by the names of American Fork and Davis. Davis has been the top team in Utah for a few years running now. But, with a couple of runners at less than 100% for the state meet, Davis didn’t have the margin to hold off American Fork’s challenge. Now emboldened, American Fork may never look back again. In former years, Davis had enough margin to withstand any challenges on a less-than-perfect day. Those years are gone. American Fork has joined the region’s elite. So, both American Fork and Davis stand in the way of Monarch/Fort Collins advancing to NXN.
Down in Arizona, Desert Vista presents a formidable challenge of their own. DV has gone all season without a substantial in-state challenge—and that could turn on them this weekend—but it is clear that this is a team capable of making it to Portland. 
Comparisons between the top five regional teams are difficult. Utah typically runs 3-mile courses. Arizona (and Desert Vista, in particular) typically runs at lower elevation. There has been direct competition crossing state lines between the top five teams.
That means all five teams go to the starting line with well-founded anxiety. Each one goes knowing that there are four other teams that could easily displace them if they are off in the slightest way. That makes for a good start line atmosphere.
Before leaving the discussion of the girls championship prospects, we’ll make a quick note of Cherry Creek. Creek goes down to NXR-SW for the first time this weekend. They also go down without the services of Jordyn Colter. Cherry Creek has had several very nice outings this season, and a couple of them without Colter. It will, however, take a perfect storm for Creek to slip into an NXN bid. It is not out of the question—it is only on the remote edge of possibility.
For the NXR-SW boys championship race, it’s hard to see any other favorite than Utah’s American Fork. AF has a five-year stranglehold on the regional title. The Cavemen haven’t yet ventured outside of Utah, but there’s plenty of stiff competition to be found within Utah, and they have summarized disposed with all of it. There is nothing about the Utah state-sanctioned season that suggests American Fork has slipped in the slightest sort of way.
Pencil Timo Mostert’s team in as big-time favorites. 
There are two Colorado teams, realistically, with any kind of hope of advancing. Those two teams would be Mountain Vista and Palmer Ridge. And, for both, whatever hope there is lies in finishing second, not in finishing third and hoping for an at-large. Honestly, neither team is ranked high enough nationally to make a compelling case for an at-large bid. That said, I’m sure that if either team does finish third, they will continue to practice for another week and hope for the best on selection weekend. It’s the dignified thing to do in that situation, and both of these teams score high on the dignity scale.
Another way that Mountain Vista and Palmer Ridge are alike is that both teams stay off of the fastest courses during the season. We could debate here whether that’s a net advantage or disadvantage for them, but the arguments come down to three:
  • All that running on softer surfaces has shortchanged MV and PR in the development of the blinding speed they’ll need to qualify on a screamer of a course like NXR-SW
  • MV and PR are likely healthier than other teams on account of less pounding delivered to their bodies by the hard surfaces so prevalent on most of the fastest courses
  • There is a stealth factor working in the favor of MV and PR on account of their seemingly slower times posted during the season.
I don’t propose to be able to tell you how those factors will all work out on Saturday. But, I do have a pretty good sense that Mountain Vista and Palmer Ridge are both a lot better teams than the times they’ve posted this season would suggest. However anyone else might feel about it, I won’t be surprised if one of these teams earns a trip to Portland this weekend.
Mountain Vista and Palmer Ridge must make their way through a phalanx of strong Utah teams in order to qualify. Those teams include Desert Hills, Timpanogos, and Davis. Each presents a formidable obstacle. And Desert Vista out of Arizona will also have their say in who qualifies out of the region. 
It’s worth noting at this point that the odds against smaller school teams (and Palmer Ridge still counts as something of a smaller school) are getting longer each year at NXR-SW. Relatively small schools could come to NXR-SW in the early years with very solid hopes of competing. But, as the event has grown and captured the interest of more and more programs, and as the internet has removed most of the secrets that ever existed in cross country, the advantage has tilted a little more in the direction of larger schools each year. For that reason alone—though I have other reasons—I’ll invest a little emotional energy in rooting for Palmer Ridge this Saturday. There’s something inside all of us that wants to see the little guy have his day in the sun.
But, at the same time, I realize Colorado is a long way from being likely to send a boys team to NXN. And it will be only the second boys team we've sent to NXN if we do send a team. It will raise a few eyebrows if either Mountain Vista or Palmer Ridge makes it. We should note that Fort Collins also comes into this meet living on the outer edge of hope of advancing.
Individually, the top five finishers not on a qualifying team will also earn trips to Portland. It’s that “not on a qualifying team” part, however, that makes the calculus of who may and may not make it so difficult.
From Colorado, the top two favorites are Katie Rainsberger and Lauren Gregory. Both were top-seven finishers at NXN last December. It's tough to imagine either of them not making it to Portland. Rainsberger has already beaten Arizona champion Dani Jones on her home turf and probably ranks as the favorite going in. While Rainsberger will be an individual if she qualifies for NXN, both Gregory and Jones have a strong possibility of qualifying as part of a team. 
And all of that helps to open other possibilities as well. Among the Colorado entries in the hunt are Kayla Young, Claudia Burgess, Kaleigh Kroeker, Tabor Scholl, Holly Bent, and Lexi Reed. Each must understand, however, that making the cut pretty much demands a near-perfect race.
There’s some strong hope among Colorado’s boys individuals as well. Paul Roberts, Marcelo Laguera, Ben Butler, and Eric Hamer take their Colorado individual titles to the Arizona desert. Also among the possibilities are names like Zach Alhamra, Bryan Hird, and Isaac Green. As good as those guys are, however, Colorado is one state among five. As it will be with the girls, any boys making the cut will need to see the race of their dreams on Saturday. Nothing less will do.
Excpect Colorado to do well. How well remains to be seen. And the "remains to be seen" part is a big piece of why we're all so interested.