That look of confidence on Kelsey Lakowske's face isn't necessarily good news for the rest of the 5A field. Photo by Jeff McCoy.
I wanted to see the Centennial League meet before sticking my neck out with a 5A preview. Not that most of this year's strongest contenders come from the Centennial League, but that I needed some additional perspective from watching a meet that was just 5A schools.
I learned that it's a tough road to state in 5A. Unless you purposely sit out your varsity a week or two during the season, there's no place to escape the bloodthirsty chase pack (either in the team sense or the individual sense) in 5A. Hunt or be hunted. It's relentless. Chris Suppes has told me about this scenario. I see it more clearly now.
It doesn't help that this is probably the best year of competition we've seen in 5A in many, many years. That is especially true on the girls' side of the ledger, but I believe it holds true on the boys' side as well.
5A Boys Individuals
This year's set of 5A boys lacks the entry who is a constant threat to blow away the field. That's not to say the field isn't strong. It merely says there is no Evan Appel or Walter Schafer in this year's field. Connor Winter may have been that entry, but--for now--it appears he's hoping just to get back into the field. In place this year is a nicely balanced field that leaves open the opportunity for several different runners to have a meaningful shot at coming out on top.
By performances to date, three individuals stand above the rest--David Garcia of Fort Collins, Keagan Vargo of Chaparral, and, of course, Will Kincaid of Columbine. Kincaid has won pretty much everywhere he's gone (at least so long as he's stayed in state), but Garcia and Vargo aren't going to stand aside and hand the title over.
Kincaid handled the hills of the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds nicely early in September, but will be as easy at the end of October? Time will tell.
Among the rest, Chris Ganem of Castle View and Garret Lee of Heritage have consistently performed the best and seem to be closest in line to take over should any of the aforementioned runners falter. Kiefer Johnson and Kirk Webb rank as darker horses, if that expression means anything.
That extra measure of state motivation belongs to Webb, Garcia, and Lee. Each of these young men carry with them a large share of their respective teams' state title hopes. That is to say that Webb, Garcia, and Lee will be running for a lot more than personal honors.
5A Boys Teams
With each passing week, this one looks more and more like a three-team race. Don't expect the other 20 or so teams to roll over and play dead, but nobody has yet given an indication that they're prepared to join the chase with Monarch, Fort Collins, and Heritage.
Monarch stole the momentum on opening weekend and, at least for two weeks of the season, appeared invincible. Since that time, it has appeared at points as if there might be a chink or two in the armor. Their domination has been more measured in subsequent weeks (including a loss at the Liberty Bell Invitational), but sometimes measured performances happen as part of a plan. Where Monarch is in their season plan we simply don't know.
Fort Collins and Heritage postponed the fireworks until a couple weeks, or more, after opening weekend. Both teams are running very well at this point. Both teams have been careful not to overrace--and especially so against stiff competition. My hunch would be that both teams have a lot left in the tank.
State will reveal who has the best plan.
Generally speaking, I like dark horses, but it's hard to put a finger on a great dark horse candidate for the state title. Chaparral and Smoky Hill need to find another gear, especially at the bottom of their scoring lineups. Dakota Ridge could be playing games of cat-and-mouse, but even adding a ringer to their varsity roster doesn't appear to thrust them into the middle of Monarch, Fort Collins, and Heritage. The same might be said if Connor Winter returns for Arapahoe, although I may be underestimating the psychological boost his return could provide.
Will we see the guy on the right in the Arapahoe lineup the next two weeks? Photo by Alan Versaw.
Regardless, it will take a substantial leap for any of the other top 5A teams to compete on even terms with the big three.
5A Girls Individuals
Many will say that this one is Eleanor Fulton's to lose. And you can understand that sentiment. Fulton, however, doesn't have a history of opening up her best races at the state meet. Maybe this year will be different, but we shall see.
If not Fulton, then whom?
Well, the answer to that question gets rather lengthy.
If you're from northern Colorado, you might be partial to Erin Hooker. Southeast Denver Metro? Olivia Anderson. Colorado Springs? Hmmm... maybe Laura Yarrow, Heather Bates, or Hannah Everson. East Denver Metro? Rikki Gonzales. Boulder? Kelsey Lakowske. And maybe you think for a second or two about Fulton's teammate--Kristen Kientz.
I'm inclined to think Fulton isn't going to lose this one. She's been simply too dominating this season. But the race for the other nine medals should get very interesting.
5A Girls Teams
Monarch hasn't been beaten yet. But Monarch didn't face the "real" Fort Collins team at Lori Fitzgerald. Boulder's Kelsey Lakowske may have a lot more race in her than we've seen so far. If Liberty can drop that #5 gap a bit, nobody should be dismissing the Lancers. Arapahoe? Perhaps, but they'll have to run a little less aggressively early than they did at the Centennial League meet, but they are solid. Pine Creek? How fast can they get the wheels back on the wagon? Highlands Ranch? The old question about the bottom of the scoring order raises it's head again. Nobody is going to win this year's state title without a sterling performance out of their #5, period.
It really is that simple. This is a critical mass of excellent teams. So many wonderful things can happen under such a convergence. And so many things can go wrong....
Fort Collins has the big meet resume like no other team in the field. But will Erin Hooker, Marci Witczak, and company be focusing on winning the state title or looking ahead to a possible return trip to NXN? Last year, Fort Collins put the emphasis on NXN, but last year they were the consensus best team in 5A--by a lot. They don't enjoy that same status this year. Not because Fort Collins has slipped, but because the rest of the field has improved that much.
Can Monarch keep up the pace they've been going?
Can Boulder find just a little bit more than what they had at Pat Patten?
Can Liberty reprise the magic that demolished everything in sight at Pat Amato?
So many questions. So few answers--for now.
Don't assume that the order of the field at two miles will tell you much at all about the final state outcome. Reserve any judgment until the teams make the second ascent of Powerline Climb. Then, and only then, will the look of a winner be a credible appearance.
But be sure to count to the fifth runner as the teams ascend Powerline Climb. And, on that measure, Fort Collins, Monarch, and Boulder may have the advantage. All three of these teams have the depth to go strong to five--and beyond.