Tears rolled down the tiny black paw print on Aliya Carey's right cheek.
She wrapped her arms around Pomona teammate Emma Stutzman, who shared the Pomona Panther paw print on her cheek, along with a few tears of her own.
"I'm so proud of you," Carey said to Stutzman.
The two embraced while still catching their breath, as they were still just a few moments removed from 3.1 miles of pure pain.
It was a common site following nearly every regional race at City Park Friday. There were tears of joy following state-qualifying performances, and there were tears of sadness from cutting the season one week shorter than expected.
But the tears Carey and Stutzman shared were of joy.
Just minutes earlier Sutzman found herself leading the the 5A Region 3 race over a trio of seniors into the final half mile. Ralston Vallley's Elizabeth Schweiker was chasing Stutzman's shadow as they rounded by the finish for one final kick, while Broomfield's Sydney Swanker and Fairview's Kinsey Hall were a few seconds back.
The stage was set heading into the final minutes: freshman phenom verses the veteran seniors.
And for Sutzman and Schweiker, you could say it was a bit of a rematch - one week ago they went head-to-head at the JeffCo 5A League Championships. Sutzman edged out Schweiker by four seconds that day.
And she would once again here.
While Schweiker was gaining with each stride, the Pomona freshman found confidence in her kick, as she threw down the hammer in the final 400 meters to run away with the biggest win of her young career - a line I've used before, and still might again...
Stutzman powered down the final straight to the cheers of the crowd. In a rare moment of expression, she glanced upwards at the finish line and grimaced from the effort, before sliding the poker-face of racing haze back over like a shield. She crossed the finish line in 19:06
Her margin of victory?
Schweiker held on for the runner-up finish in 19:10, while behind her a chaotic kick to the finish was brewing.
Hall kicked hard, and late, to climb back onto Swanker's shoulder heading into the final straight.
The two battled into the final strides with Swanker taking the edge over Hall, finishing third in 19:16 to Hall's 19:16 - but it was closer than it sounds.
The team race would replicate this finish with Broomfield taking the title 70-73 over Fairview. The battle for those final two state-qualifying spots was hotly contested. Legacy finished third with 97 points - one point ahead of Denver East's 98, while Boulder was just five points back from qualifying with 103.
Next Page: Daley Crushes The Field, Boulder Edges Out Fairview