Dakota Ridge Runs Deep!

Austin Vancil carefully tied the laces of his black Saucony flats. A mixture of dried dirt and sweat lingered on the laces, remnants of a season of grinding. The tight curls of his thick afro dangled from the top of his head, bouncing gently with his movements like a carefully crafted haircare commercial. 

If only I filmed the moment in slow-motion...

The senior meticulously tightened the knot, insuring it wouldn't go loose once the real running ensued. He was calm and collected, and radiated a confidence that seemed to prefer leading by example, rather than with words. While his attire of a white "State Qualifier" t-shirt and gray shorts lacked any flare, his afro made up for it. It was his signature, his stamp, his marque déposée

On all sides of him were neon green spike bags that littered the soft dirt trail by Hine Lake Wednesday afternoon. The trail was busy soaking up the final warm rays of the afternoon sun in attempts to recapture that dry state once more. But hints of moisture still lingered beneath the surface, creating pocket of mud around the lake.

This would be no dry run.

Vancil's Dakota Ridge teammates laced up as well, preparing for their the final workout before catching the red-eye flight to Phoenix Thursday morning for the Nike Cross Regional Southwest Championships. 

There was Vancil's wingman, frequent racing partner, and swimmer-turned-runner, Connor Ohlson, who, with  a pensive look in his eye and youthful face resembled a young Cary Elwes, only the junior's tights weren't green, they were gray.

There was the breakout sophomore of the year, Jacob White, who donned loose black pants and reflective sunglasses. His long blonde hair sliced across his forehead in all directions and glimmered in the Colorado sun. 

There was Benjamin Piegat, with his thin glasses and gentle curls. The junior, and fourth runner for Dakota Ridge at state, frequently wore a smile on his face as if enjoying every bit of the moment he was in. 

There was perhaps the savor of the season, Ben Morrin, who spent the first half of the Fall injured, but rallied to be the squad's fifth and final scoring runner at State. A skeptical five-o'clock shadow painted the outlines of his fresh face, which otherwise exuded his youth.

There was Riley Abrashoff, the only other senior on the state championship squad. The sweat from his hair fluffed upwards into the sky as he oozed calmness. His thoughts percolated in his head well before they left his lips.

There was Drew Valerio, the footballer-turned-cross-country runner with his lightly gelled black hair mimicked his black attire, which replicated his more quiet demeanor.

And there was a handful of 'Ridge runners escorting the squad in their final workout. Fellow devotees who had shared many miles around this very lake during the season, why not once more?

Looming above them was head coach Mark Stenbeck in a black hoodie and sunglasses. He spoke deliberately of the workout ahead with his hands clasped in concentration. 

"It's whatever you feel you need," he reminded his team, emphasizing you. "Just as long it's not a 10 mile threshold run."

It was a moment that has defined the season: Flow. 

In other words: Stenbeck and Dakota Ridge boy's team were focusing on what's worked for them over the past three months, and allowing room for the variables. And while Stenbeck can justifiably take ownership over the reemergence of the program at Dakota Ridge, he's quick to sidestep the assertion and chalk it up as a collaboration. 

It's whatever you feel you need.

Stenbeck's squad, while neither old, nor young, has spent years sharing the sweat of trials and tribulation that accompanies competitive running, and because of this fact, Stenbeck, like his team, knows that in the final days before a big race, whatever the athlete feels will best prepare them truly is in the mind. 

"We know what we need," Ohlson explained later. "We're the only ones who truly know how we feel each day."

And on this day the workout called for a one-way trip down the ladder, starting with a four minute interval at two mile pace, perhaps.

Vancil led just over a dozen teammates to the makeshift starting line which was drawn across the path with a heavy foot. Standing in the middle, his afro gave him an additional six-inches of height, which lit up the foreground as the landscape of Denver's skyline sat nearly 15 miles behind him. His high-rising curls mimicked the high-rising skyscrapers in the distance as if competing for air space.

"Ready... Set... Go!" Vancil said in a low tone, leading the Dakota Ridge boys off the line and into their final workout before Saturday's audition. 

Stenbeck watched his squad run down the gentle dirt hill, off and away and around Hine Lake. Flocks of birds landed in the water, sending ripples out in all directions while the boys squad comfortably cruised around the lake in a pack of half a dozen at just under five minutes a mile. 

"I threw out the plan a long time ago," Stenbeck joked. 

While the light-hearted comment came off with a chuckle, it's been a staple of the squad all season long, and it's been one that's proven to be successful. Throwing out the plan, or the concept of flowing with the tides of the season proved to be exactly what Dakota Ridge would need to accomplish something they hadn't in over a decade.

Next Page: A Season Of Faith's Perfection