High among the teams to watch for in 5A boys this year is Dakota Ridge. Austin Appel leads the charge. Photo by Alan Versaw.
Last fall, Regis won the 5A title by a substantial margin. Although Walter Schafer won the individual title, his Cherry Creek team fell victim to some untimely injuries and was no longer a strong contender for the team title by the time the big race came around.
Both Regis and last year's runner-up Cherokee Trail lost the franchises to graduation. In their place, a number of programs appear poised to fill the apparent vacancy in the position of supremacy. A lot remains to be settled on the course, but a few glimpses at who seem to be holding strong hands follow:
Dakota Ridge is no stranger to the upper echelons of 5A boys cross country. In 2006, Dakota Ridge came home with the gold trophy and has been within shouting distance of the top on and off since that time. This year, the time may be ripe for Mike Callor's crew to climb to the top again. Austin Appel and Danny Carney, last year's top two runners, are back. Only one of last year's top five was a senior. That and rumors about a transfer and an incoming freshman with a very recognizable name have been driving up the price of Dakota Ridge stock all summer long.
Fort Collins seemed to be out of gas at last year's state meet, but the Lambkins were young and were surging late in the season. Like Dakota Ridge, only one of the top five graduated. Don't be misled by last year's 13th-place finish. David Garcia and Griffin Hay should be leading the team into title contention this fall.
Monarch finished a strong fifth last fall, and top runner Kirk Webb is back for his junior season. The Coyotes, however, will have to fill holes left by the graduation of their 2 and 3 runners. Monarch, however, may be the deepest team in this year's field. They don't have a history of winning state cross country titles, but there is no time like the present to write history.
Heritage, last year's 11th-place finisher, is another program that was a little on the young side last year and figures to be improved this year. Front runner Garret Lee returns; the remainder of the returning team members need to take their races up a notch. If that happens, this is a team to be reckoned with.
And then there would be Arapahoe. Everyone knows about Connor Winter. The Warriors finished well back in 14th at state last year, but things seem to have taken a positive turn over the last year. The Arapahoe distance crew performed well in track last spring. Matthew Winfrey and Jason Kearns have graduated, but the younger team members are showing signs of being ready to step up.
If you like serious dark horses, consider the prospects for Castle View. Castle View was the 3rd-place 4A team last fall before moving up to 5A this fall. Team front runner Chris Ganem is back. #2 runner Zach Schmidt is back. But, are the SaberCats deep enough to be a serious threat in 5A? Time will tell.
Other teams may be closing in on being ready to make state championship runs. Those teams would include Thornton, Fairview, and Pomona. Cherry Creek seems to be well-positioned as well.
My instincts tell me that the team title comes down to between Dakota Ridge, Fort Collins, and Monarch, but nobody enjoys a prohibitive advantage at this point. Many, many teams should have a say in this before the dust settles.
Individually, Connor Winter threw down the gauntlet at the state track meet. If you're strong enough to sweep the 800, 1600, and 3200 at state track, you're strong enough to go in as the favorite in cross country. It doesn't hurt that Winter is also the only returning runner from last year's top six individuals.
But that doesn't make it a done deal.
Prominent among those looking to upset Winter's apple cart include: Keegan Vargo of Chaparral, Andrew Goodman of Palmer, Will Kincaid of Columbine, Mark Choate of Cherry Creek, Garret Lee of Heritage, Austin Appel of Dakota Ridge, Chris Ganem of Castle View, and Kirk Webb of Monarch. Based on a solid track season as a sophomore, Keifer Johnson of ThunderRidge might warrant a second look as well.