Long months of hard work and sacrifice paid off in the most satisfying way for the Niwot girls cross country team at this year’s Class 4A state championships, held Oct. 27 at the Norris-Penrose Center in Colorado Springs.
Led by one-two finishers Layla Roebke and Taylor James, the Cougars ended with 47 points to claim their first-ever state title, a feat made possible thanks to the unusually strong team bond forged during a grueling regular season, according to junior Joelle McDonald, who was Niwot’s third fastest runner on the day.
“That was our whole thing this year,” McDonald said. “We’re running for each other. Not for ourselves, but each other. I feel like that’s what pushed us to win. There were a lot of things, but that really helped us get the edge.”
McDonald finished with a time of 19 minutes, 9.6 seconds, which was good for 11th place overall and, crucially, ahead of Battle Mountain’s third finisher, senior Lizzy Harding, who seemed surprised to see McDonald overtake her down the stretch.
“I feel like the whole team came out feeling so strong and ready and connected,” McDonald said. “So during the race, every time I saw one of my teammates on the course, I thought ‘I’m doing it for them.’”
As they have all season, Niwot’s top-five runners finished within close proximity of each other in the final standings, with Roebke taking her turn in the top spot. The senior moved to Niwot with her family from the Springs area last summer, and hoped her familiarity with the course at Norris-Penrose would prove an advantage in her sport’s ultimate contest.
“I know it’s going to be hard,” she said after Niwot qualified for state at the Region 3 race on Oct. 19. “I feel like knowing the course is going to make it fly by a lot faster.”
Something made it fly by quickly for Roebke, who won the Class 4A title with a personal-best time of 18:29, six seconds faster than teammate James (18:35), and 12 seconds better than Battle Mountain senior Naomi Harding.
“It feels good to win individually, but it feels even better to help my team win their title too,” Roebke said, echoing the sentiment of the day.
The team’s post-race excitement was infectious. For James, who will no doubt be back among the contenders at next year’s championships, the team bond goes beyond mere good team chemistry.
“We really just trust in each other one hundred percent,” she said. “We’re all just so close, we’re a family in so many different ways.”
Many expressed surprise at the outcome including senior Maggie Smith, who called the win “a special way to cap off four years of hard work.”
“We didn’t know this was going to happen, and I think that was the sweetest part,” Smith said. “We put in the work, and to finish like this...that’s just the cherry on top.”
Smith finished 20th overall, with a time of 19:31, edging out Battle Mountain runner Emma Redder. Ahead of Smith was junior Samrawit Dishon at 19:20, which was 55 seconds faster than her time in the 2017 state race (20:25).
“I’m very proud of my teammates,” Dishon said. “I think we accomplished what we needed to do. I’m very proud.”
Also running for Niwot was senior Mallory Finley in her final high school race, who called the team championship “surreal,” and freshman Eva Klingbeil, who said she was initially intimidated by statewide competitors, but quickly felt at ease thanks to her teammates.
Niwot head coach Kelly Christensen called the championship performance a “validation” of the pack running strategy his team has been using all season. Nor was he particularly surprised by Roebke’s title-winning performance, her best since taking first at the Liberty Bell Invitational on Sept. 8.
“We have four girls that train every day together,” he said. “They do every rep and interval together. They start and finish together, so, in my mind, we have four girls that on any day could win.”
Like his runners, Christensen has no doubt that the girls’ team-first mentality played a critical factor in the victory.
“The girls trust in each other a little more and they trust the training a little more,” he said. “They run for each other.”