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By Jocelyn Rowley
Sports@lhvc.com 

Newcomers lift Niwot XC

 

August 24, 2017



Niwot head cross country coach Kelly Christensen said he is out of the prediction business after his team’s dispiriting finish at last year’s Class 4A state championship meet.

“I don’t want to say where I think they’ll be, because last year I said that and we had kind of a meltdown at state,” said the second year head coach. “So I’m just going to keep them healthy and keep them rolling.”

But even if he won’t say so explicitly, it’s clear that Christensen believes Niwot has the potential for a special season, especially on the boys’ side. With just a handful of seniors lost to graduation, the 2017 Cougars will feature that rare combination of veteran experience and exciting new talent. The only thing holding them back, says Christensen, is themselves.

“Ninety-five percent of what we need to do to win, we’ve already done,” said the coach, who last April was named cross country 2016 Coach of the Year by the Colorado High School Coaches Association. “The five percent that I can’t control is competing. They have to learn to run all the way through the race when it’s not going the way they thought it would go. If we can’t compete, it doesn’t matter how fast we are.”

On the girls side, Christensen admitted that there is some uncertainty going into the season, but he has largely shrugged it off. Five of last year’s varsity members returned to the 2017 squad, including junior Maggie Smith, who was the top runner in 2016 until an injury forced her to sit out the second half of cross country and all of track season. Healthy again, but still working up to “full mileage,” Christensen hopes she will be back to form by the midway point of the season.

Returning with Smith are senior Jeri Wilcox and sophomores Joelle McDonald and Elise Gillett. McDonald was the second fastest Niwot girl at state last year, finishing just seconds out of the top-30. They will be joined by incoming freshmen Annabelle Huddle and Taylor James. Christensen expects James to have an immediate impact on the team, and called her “a great frontrunner” who is capable of competing with the fastest girls in 4A

Other newcomers to the team this year include track & field veterans Samrawit Dishon and senior Mary Gillett, who is training with the cross country team this fall to supplement her sprint conditioning, but will probably not run in many races.

Overall, Christensen said that he believes his girls’ team is better than it was a year ago, thanks to a productive summer program and a renewed focus on conditioning and injury prevention. “We’re taking a much different approach with the girls’ team in general this year. We had a way better summer, and that should show. We’re just going to try to continue to build fitness and momentum for the end of the season.”

That said, it is a team still finding its strengths.

“I like the mystery of our girls team right now,” continued the coach. “They don’t really have an identity. I think we’re probably going to learn a lot early in the season. We’re not going to come out surprising anyone, but as the girls get healthy and get to their full mileage and full training capabilities, then we might surprise some people. Well, as much as the Niwot girls can surprise anyone.”

If Christensen is optimistic about the girls’ prospects down the stretch, he is downright giddy about the boys.

“They are really, really driven, and they work extremely hard as a group. Their consistency all summer long has been better than any team I’ve coached, and I’ve been lucky enough to coach some state title teams,” said Christensen. In two seasons of coaching at Palmer Ridge High School in Monument, he won two state titles with his boys track & field teams (2014, 2015), and one with his boys cross country team (2014). “The bummer is that 4A boys is going to be really tough at the top again this year.”

The 2017 Niwot boys will be a team long on depth. Seven state qualifiers are returning this year, including seniors Kenny Lang, Ethan Steiner, and Oskar Wells. They will be joined by newcomers Ares Reading, a standout runner at Canyon Crest Academy in San Diego last year, and sophomore Cruz Culpepper, who sat out his freshman year due to a CHSAA eligibility issue.

“I think it might be a sign of destiny for this team,” Christensen said of his new transfer and projected number one. “It’s not too often a kid named Ares falls into your lap.” In Greek mythology, Ares is the god of war and son of Zeus and Hera.

Culpepper is also the son of Olympians, albeit literal ones in the form of distance runners Alan Culpepper and Shayne Wille. Though he is expected to have a breakout season for the Cougars on the track, he is also slated to play No. 2 doubles for the Niwot tennis team, an arrangement made possible, Christensen said, by his young star’s maturity and prodigious athletic instincts.

All told, Christensen could have up to 10 boys rotating in and out of the varsity lineup, giving Niwot a distinct advantage as the season grinds on. Though Silver Creek and Palmer Ridge remain the 4A teams to beat on paper, Christensen thinks the Cougars’ depth could be the key to beating their Northern League arch-rival.

“I think we have a chance to beat Silver Creek, I really do,” he said. “We have to do our best to match their powerful three, who are really, really good. We have to focus on our pack time, and getting as many guys in front of their fifth runner as we can. It’s going to take a good day, but I like being the underdog.”

The Cougars kick off the 2017 season on Aug. 25 at the Vista Nation 2-Mile at Mountain Vista High School in Highlands Ranch. On Sep. 1, the Cougars head for Ft. Collins for the CSU Frontier Invitational.

 

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