The Niwot track and field team lost a number of its top performers to graduation after last season, but Maurice Henriques isn’t fazed. In fact, the ninth-year head coach thinks the 2019 Cougars are poised for even more success, thanks in part to many of those departed stars.
“I actually think we’re a better team this year than we were last year, as a complete team,” he said. “All of those girls are a year older, and the leadership that Mary [Gillett] and Mackenzie [Fidelak] passed down has been great….Our leadership as a whole across the board is better. It’s not just one person here and one person there, it’s everyone sharing in the leadership, and that’s what I’m excited about.”
It’s hard not to be excited about a squad that includes four returning state title holders on the girls team, and a crop of emerging stars on the boys team. The Cougars are also coming off what Henriques termed, “the best off-season as a whole since I’ve been at Niwot.” In fact, Henriques said it’s hard to remember when he’s had a team so deep on both sides.
“We’re pretty much even on the girls, as far as sprint, hurdles, jump, distance, we’re just lacking throws,” he said. “On the boys, obviously we have a lot of depth in distance, but I am optimistic about our jumps. Our jumps’ coach is saying that he’s going to have three on the podium at state, so remind me if that doesn’t get done.”
The team’s motto this year is ‘relentless’, and Henriques said the team will strive to maintain that type of focus all season long. “We’re just going to try to get better every week.”
As he does every year, Henriques expects to see his girls team get the top spot on the podium at the Class 4A championships this coming May, despite the loss of the aforementioned Gillett and Fidelak, winners of a combined eight medals at the 2018 state meet. However, like his counterparts in the tennis program, Henriques never seems to run short of emerging talent.
Returning to this year’s girls’ team are 13 members of last year’s state team, led by talented sophomore Taylor James, who won two state track titles as a freshman, in the 800 meters and as a member of the 4x400 relay team, and also medaled in the high jump. She also helped Niwot capture its first ever girls cross country title back in October with a second-place overall finish, behind teammate and state title winner Layla Roebke.
“Taylor James was second in cross country, but she probably won’t run a distance event, she’ll probably end up running sprints,” Henriques said. “It just shows how versatile we are. We just plug kids in where they fit the team, where they can score the most points, and develop them.”
Also returning are seniors Erin Carroll, Kayla Nowlin, Maggie Smith, and Erika Timbang, the latter two also members of last year’s winning 4x400 team. Joining them are juniors Samwarit Dishon, Elise Gillett, Joelle McDonald, Nikki Sims, Julea Trank, and Kelia Portis, the final member of the relay title team and also a competitor in the long and triple jumps. Sophomores Margot Disabeyguawardena and Lucca Fulkerson are also back in 2019.
There are also some talented newcomers, chief among them senior Roebke, who transferred to Niwot from Coronado last summer, and then promptly led her new cross country team to a state title. Also new to the team are freshmen Amelia Philofsky and Eva Klingbeil, who rounded out the Cougars’ cross country team at state.
Aside from being loaded with talent, the Cougars are also the beneficiary of an off-season CHSAA realignment. Last year’s state champion Valor Christian was elevated to Class 5A, where Henriques expects to see them win another state title. That clears the path for Niwot, which was runner up to the Eagles’, despite scoring a school record 114 team points.
“I think we have the potential to score in every event but three, and we’re still working on those,” Henriques said. “In my tenure here, we were seventh, fifth, three wins in a row, runner-up, third, runner-up. We’re about due again, and that’s the goal.”
As for the boys, Henriques also has lofty expectations, and doesn’t rule out the top spot on the podium for them, even though their list of returning state qualifiers took a bigger hit from graduation.
“When it’s all said and done, we’ll be a top-five team in the state,” he said. “Now, I can’t tell you if we’re going to be fifth or first, but it’s looking good.”
The Niwot boys finished 18th overall last year, but it was their best showing since 2013. Five of those state qualifiers are returning, including Cruz Culpepper and Ares Reading, who finished one-two at this season’s Class 4A cross country championships, and are favorites to contend for the Class 4A titles in distance events.
Other returning state qualifiers are Benjamin Bi, Jensen Douillard, and Emrick Wells, who emerged as one of the Cougars’ top sprinters last season. They will be joined by seniors Nolan Johan, Daniel Thomas, and Jack Volf, as well as juniors Rayan Elahi, Milo Ostwald, Luke Robinson, Caleb Bishop, Ethan Jiang, and Jack Kenkel. Henriques also expects to see a few sophomore and freshman competing for the Niwot boys.
The coach is also excited about the influx of competitors to the jumping events, and believes that’s an area where the Niwot boys could turn some heads this season. Leading that effort is a contingent of Niwot basketball players, including Austin Rathburn and Ostwald, who saw success at the end of last season in both the high and long jumps.
Henriques will once again have a full complement of experienced assistants helping him, including cross country coach Kelly Christensen, football assistants Scott Thomas and Mike Byers, and Niwot campus supervisor and former thrower Lamar West. Helping with jumps this season is former Denver South coach Bryant Strause.
The coaches finally got a chance to see their team in action on March 9, but it took a little scrambling to do it, thanks to a last minute cancellation of the Boulder Snow Invite. Luckily, Henriques was able to arrange for Niwot to compete in the CSU-Pueblo Early Bird Invitational, even though the team had to meet a bus at 5:30 a.m. on a Saturday to do it.
The early travel didn’t seem to bother the Cougars, however. Niwot won the team title on both the boys’ and girls’ sides handily, and certainly seem well on the way to fulfilling their coach’s predictions. Top individual performers were James for the girls, with wins in four individual events, and Wells for the boys, with top finishes in the three sprints.
Up next for the Cougars is the Frederick Pow Wow on March 15 and the Windsor Invitational on Saturday, Mar. 16.