One race everyone will be watching with interest on Saturday is the 5A girls showdown between Monarch, Fort Collins, and Boulder (not shown). Photo by Alan Versaw.
This year will be my 11th visit to a state cross country meet. 10 as a coach and one as a spectator. There are a lot of memories wrapped up in those 11 visits. Many of those memories provide a springboard for speculation regarding what might happen this time.
My first visit to state cross county was in 1996. My niece was running in the state meet for Golden High School, so I made the trip down from Colorado Springs to Pueblo. But I retain only the vaguest memories of my niece running that day (sorry, Kristen!).
What I remember most vividly from that day is a purple streak named Aaron Blondeau. Blondeau opened up 33 seconds on the field and surely could have run faster if he'd been pushed. Salida hasn't had anyone like Blondeau since then--until now. Josh Noriega's running style isn't very reminiscent of Blondeau's, but the results are eerily similar.
So, the first thing I wonder about is whether Noriega will bring the state individual title back to Salida. He's a clear and undisputed favorite to win, but running the race on paper isn't the same as running the course. Strange things have been known to happen on race day.
Speaking of strange things, in 2004, I recall watching in disbelief as sophomore Molly Palmer amped up her turnover rate at the end to pull away from the 5A girls field, beating Morgan Schulz by 15 seconds. It would prove to be a singular moment in Palmer's running career as she just missed qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals that fall, and the following two seasons were not kind to her. But, for a brief shining moment, she was on top of the world.
Will there be a prohibitive underdog who stuns the competition and breaks away for an easy win as Palmer did in 2004? Well... you simply can't predict things like this. An underdog is anyone is isn't supposed to win. Wait and see what happens.
I recall the 2002 showdown between Ian Burrell and Brent Vaughn. Two guys hammering mercilessly on each other for three miles--around the Kent Denver Campus, back down the canal trail, back onto the fields, neither giving anything to the other until Vaughn broke just before the finish line. It took Vaughn a long time to fully recover.
In 2008, there was another epic showdown: Kaitlin Hanenburg and Samantha Berggren. Berggren came up on Hanenburg's shoulder shortly after the mile and stuck there with a resolution that defied description. Neither flinched. They went stride for stride until 400 meters remained. Then Berggren surged into a tiny lead. Hanenburg responded. Stride for stride they continued until Berggren could no longer sustain the pace. Hanenburg won by three seconds but paid for the win with a long period of exhaustion following. Except for an undersized girl from Air Academy, Hanenburg and Berggren posted what were easily the two best times of the morning.
Could there be such a duel in the making this year? Fulton vs. Lakowske? Garcia vs. Kincaid vs. Vargo? Kelly vs. Robinson? It will be a spectator's dream if such a showdown emerges again.
In 2001, I witnessed the dismal spectacle of Megan Lund grimacing in pain as she struggled to finish the race that, a mere 30 minutes earlier, had held so much hope for her father's Alpine Christian team. Lund finished last among the 3A girls that day. AC would finish third as a team, behind Denver Christian and Estes Park. But, if you retally the scores and figure a reasonable score for Megan Lund, the girls in green probably would have brought home the big trophy that had eluded them by a single point the year before.
Not to wish that kind of disappointment on anyone, but chances are there will be at least one team that will leave the Arapahoe County Fairgrounds Saturday afternoon wondering what might have been if an injury had not changed the course of their day.
In 2008, with arms and legs flying in a frenzy usually reserved for 100 meter races, Allie McLaughlin (the aforementioned undersized phenom from Air Academy) went pedal-to-the-metal for a full 5000 meters. Nobody came close to matching McLaughlin's time that day. At the state level, and especially at the 5A level, you aren't supposed to be able to win by more than a minute. McLaughlin did.
While a margin of a minute or more seems highly unlikely in any of this Saturday's races, we might still speculate on who could post the largest margin of victory. Rather than put people under that kind of microscope, however, let's just plan to revisit this one after the races are done on Saturday. I have my personal prediciton on this topic, but I'll keep it personal for the time being.
The weather forecast seems well-suited to spare us conditions similar to the soggy course of 2006. That year, athletes came across the 200 meters of field before the finish with feet sinking very nearly to the ankles in soggy turf. With legs already screaming from exhaustion, runners had to labor each step to pull one foot after the other out of the shoe-sucking sod and keep moving forward. It may have been the most cruel finish in state meet history.14 inches of snow two days before the meet did the trick.
There was the infamous short course course of 2003. For a glorious moment or two, upon scanning the finish times, many of us believed we had suddenly become great coaches. The feeling was intoxicating, but eventually a more rational perspective settled in. All those sub-16 and sub-19 times really did have a better explanation. And, unfortunately, the course at the Vineyards Golf Course never did settle into a fixed configuration. There never was a standard by which to compare times from year to year.
I think we can safely agree that the times produced on Saturday aren't likely to intoxicate any of us coaches into overestimating the job we've done this fall. The places? Maybe. The times? Nope.
I recall the frustration of trying to find Rocky Ford in the 2007 race. In a tactic that's been used before, Rocky Ford showed up in new (or, more accurately, old) uniforms--not the classic yellow singlets and red shorts they've worn for years upon multiplied years, but in some red 90s throwback kind of uniforms with 80s and 90s era Washington Redskins stripes on the shorts. Sad to say, it worked. On a day where we felt we could have won, we lost track of one of the primary adversaries. It was a nice little coaching move by Ron Shepherd.
Will someone show up in unrecognizable uniforms this year? Almost certainly, yes. I've already seen a few new uniforms on teams in the last couple of weeks. Will the stratagem work? That's a story waiting to be told.
It hardly seems possible that it was this long ago already, but in 2003 there was the orange-clad Denver West team--the product of some hard work to pull a few unknown, but talented, kids out of the woodwork coupled with a unique coaching arrangement that would disintegrate over the months that followed. But, for a few shining months of the 2003 season, the miracle was on display--seven inner-city kids, some of them still very new to the country, turning the world of Colorado high school cross country on its ear. The Cowboys--a completely incongruous moniker for this bunch--won the 5A state meet by 64 points over Cherry Creek.
There doesn't seem to be a human interest story in the making this year to rival that of the 2003 Denver West team, but there are several intriguing stories waiting to be completed nevertheless:
1. The return of Kelsey Lakowske after an injury and surgery that threatened to end her running career.
2. The rapid and unlikely emergence of Frontier Academy as a 3A power in the first year of their program.
3. Peak to Peak's last minute Coach Richey pulling the program back together and giving the Pumas a memorable season.
4. A Moffat County boys team that looks better every week of the season. While my hunch is that Cheyenne Mountain is still the favorite in 4A boys, if you've been watching the trajectory of Moffat County's season, you have to think the Bulldogs still have a chance.
5. And, of course, the ultimate showdown between the 5A girls superpowers of Monarch, Boulder, and Fort Collins.
It's fitting that this one will not be settled until the final race of the day. Correction: The 5A boys is the final race of the day. The 5A girls race goes fourth at 11 AM. It would have been fitting if this one was the last one of the day, but the 5A boys isn't such a bad race, either.