It’s hard to top a state championship for drama, but the Niwot girls’ performance at the Nike Cross National Championships on Dec. 1 may have come close. Seeded 22nd of the 22 teams invited, the Cougars finished fifth overall on the day and cemented their status as one of the most surprising high school cross country teams of 2018.
One person who wasn’t surprised was Niwot cross country head coach Kelly Christensen, who said that his team knew they were better than their last-place seed.
“After state, we just kept going over all the data and how much different the races are with 50 individual girls that qualify. We really spent a lot of time on that, and it started to sink in more and more, and we knew we could end up top-three if things went well.”
Sophomore Taylor James once again led the way for Niwot, finishing in 17 minutes, 48.5 seconds, which was good for 35th place overall, out of more than 200 runners. After James was junior Samrawit Dishon (18:20.60) in 70th, followed by senior Maggie Smith (18:4.40) in 95th, freshman Eva Klingbiel (18:50.30, 106th), and senior Layla Roebke (19:09.20) in 131st). The Cougars ended the day with 219 team points, just seven points behind the fourth-place finisher, and 12 points out of third.
Niwot’s strong showing in Portland didn’t go unnoticed. In its final 2018 national rankings, influential running website MileSplit put the Niwot girls fifth overall in their final team standings, up from twelfth place the week before. Again, their coach didn’t find that all too surprising.
“We knew all along we had the talent, and we know they put in the work,” Christensen said of the team, which outgrew some early season confidence issues. “But it’s the timing of the fitness and the psychology - there’s just a bunch of leaders on this team.”
Joining the girls on the national stage this fall was Niwot senior Ares Reading, another Niwot runner who saved his best for last. Starting on Nov. 16, Reading raced in four highly competitive regional and national races over four straight weeks, posting top-20 finishes in each, including 17th overall in the highly competitive Nike boys field in Portland, and 19th-place at the Foot Locker National Championship meet in San Diego a week later.
Those performances also caught MileSplit’s attention, and he ended up ranked 25th in the nation on the year-end individual list.
“He’s trained as hard as anyone I’ve ever coached as far as putting in the mileage and really grinding after it every day,” Christensen said. “So we knew it was possible. I think he knows if he went back and ran Nike again, he could have been in that top 10.”
Reading’s accomplishment was all the more impressive considering he lost training and running partner Cruz Culpepper along the way, when the junior took a few weeks off to recover after the CHSAA season. According to Christensen, the change forced Reading to make some adjustments that were uncomfortable at first, but eventually “propelled him to another level.”
“I think it gave him confidence, too, when he realized how much he holds himself back and lets other people dictate the way he runs,” Christensen said. ”When he went to Foot Locker, it was a huge confidence boost for him to go out there and see what he can do. He had nothing to lose at that point. He also loved the fact that it was muddy.”
Back in Colorado, the team is transitioning to the indoor track and is looking forward to the outdoor track season, which gets started in March. Reading also has a busy travel schedule on his agenda, as the breakout star has yet to finalize his post-high school plans, but has several recruiting trips planned. Among his choices for next year are Furman College in South Carolina and the University of Portland.