Handicapping the 5A girls race

Anyone forgotten about last year's 5A girls state race yet? Didn't think so.

How do you wrap your mind around a team going 1-2-4-9-12 at state? Yes, there were hints that Dakota Ridge was waiting in ambush for the rest of the field. Those hints started dropping with the Dave Sanders meet and continued through the league and regional meets. One couldn't help but wonder what would happen when Coach Callor put his top five on the same course and turned them loose. Nobody, however, could have guessed the kind of dominance they would exhibit that chilly morning.

I'd love to have a copy of whatever motivational words he uttered that morning. I'm guessing it was more profound than, "It's cold out here. Hurry up and get this over with, would ya?"

Is there an encore effort in Coach Callor's bag of tricks? Only time will tell. You can be certain, though, that nobody is looking past Dakota Ridge this year.

The first thing standing in the way of a repeat for Dakota Ridge is a solid, deep Fort Collins team, maybe even better than last year's Fort Collins team. Last year, Tati Ogan was struggling late in the season. This year she's a solid #3 (and sometimes a #2) for the Lambkins--someone who can match up with any other #3 in the state. Perhaps the biggest advantage Fort Collins has over the competition, however, is at the 4th and 5th scoring positions.

The only team that has matched--the only team that has even come close to matching--Fort Collins runner-for-runner all season long is 4A Thompson Valley. It's worth noting, however, that Rachel Viger was recovering from an illness and sat out that particular meet.

If you look up and down the roster of 5A contending teams, nobody has yet shown that they have an answer to Fort Collins at the 4 and 5 positions. To beat Fort Collins will require either than Fort Collins collapses or that someone finds an answer--or two answers, to be more precise.

The list of contenders isn't a short one--it certainly includes Dakota Ridge, Cherry Creek, Highlands Ranch, Doherty, Boulder, Palmer, Green Mountain, and Rocky Mountain. Legacy and Arapahoe have made recent credible bids for inclusion on the list.

Boulder, Cherry Creek, and Highlands Ranch each have multiple runners who clocked a race in under 19:00 this season. That alone makes them teams worth watching. Rocky Mountain likely brings the most balanced team, outside of Fort Collins, to the table. Air Academy, of course, brings Allie McLaughlin, the prohibitive favorite to win the individual title.

And, speaking of individuals, who will be hoping she can summon from within the magical race that derails the best female distance runner ever to split time with lacrosse?

Miranda Benzel of Fort Collins has the next-best 5A time of the season, though she's clustered with Natosha Rogers of Dakota Ridge, Eleanor Fulton of Highlands Ranch, Kaitie Vanatta of Dakota Ridge, Kristen Kientz of Highlands Ranch, Clare Gallagher of Cherry Creek, Sam Lewis of Boulder, and Dominique Gerard of ThunderRidge. Each of these are very capable runners, and the lines between the members of this group are both thin and indistinct.

Among these, Kaitie Vanatta is the wild card. Last year, she pushed teammate Alexa Rogers all the way to the finish before settling for second place. Nobody has forgotten what she did two and three years ago, but she has raced exactly once since last year's state meet, and only sparingly in the year before that. Will she be able to stay healthy? Can she return to her former level if she is healthy?

Questions are also beginning to gather around Natosha Rogers, who has not raced since Liberty Bell. If the masterminds at Dakota Ridge figure she doesn't need a race between Liberty Bell and regionals or state, that's good enough for me, but it's certainly a departure from the usual progression of a season.

Lest anyone interpret this as a declaration that the 5A girls team and individual titles are already in hand, I would remind all of the recent history of upsets in the 5A girls ranks. How many times in recent years has Fort Collins come in as a substantial favorite and left without the big trophy? Who gave Molly Palmer a prayer of winning the individual title in 2004?

Nothing is settled. And we should hope that nothing is conceded.