By John David - MileSplit Correspondent
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This much is sure. The Niwot High School girls cross country team isn't sneaking up on anyone at this stage of the season.
Despite last year's fifth-place finish at Nike Cross Nationals, the No. 8 ranked Cougars spent the first half of the season out of the national spotlight.
In late September, the squad was on the outside looking in -- "They're on the bubble until they can put together a consistent race," was the copy attributed to the MileSplit50 national rankings over that stretch.
Not anymore. A win at Desert Twilight opened some eyes.
But it was the perfect score at last week's Colorado High School Activities Association Class 4A Region-3 meet that has the state, and the NXR Southwest region, on full alert.
Niwot is peaking at just the right time.
"We do a little bit of everything to prepare for the season: Hills, long intervals, faster track stuff, tempo runs," head coach Kelly Christensen said. "The first half of the season we're focused on the work, pack running and workouts and put our individual goals away. It's not usually until late September, that as a team we will have flow in workouts and competitions where we're really all firing."
Early-season injuries played a role in Niwot's relatively slow start. The team was unable to train and compete as a cohesive unit.
Read: Class 4A Preview: Niwot headlines the action
"Now that all of the girls have been consistently training for a long time, it has all come together," senior Samrawit Dishon said.
Her teammate, Joelle McDonald, added: "We don't train to run well in August; we train to run well in October, November and December."
At no time was that more evident than at the regional meet. Led by Dishon's sub-19:00 performance on a rain-soaked course, Niwot showed its dominance with the 1-5 sweep. More than 30 seconds later, the first non-Niwot runner crossed the finish line.
"You never go to a meet saying we're going to perfect score," Christensen said. "It was a special day. It validated their love for each other and the hard work they do. It's pretty cool when something like that happens."
As attention turns to the CHSAA State Cross Country Championships on Saturday at the Norris Penrose Events Center course, the challenge for the Niwot girls is to capitalize on their momentum without becoming too confident.
While Colorado boasts four teams in the national rankings, only Niwot resides in the Class 4A classification. The team's race will be long over by the time powerhouses Cherry Creek, Mountain Vista and Cherokee Trail battle it out for the big school title.
According to Christensen, Niwot's approach to the race is the same as it has been all year.
"We don't really talk about other individuals or other teams," he said. "We focus more on the numbers and provide them with data on where they need to be positioned in the race."
"Our message for state is to duplicate your efforts and expect to see a lot more company with you for longer. You're going to have to fight every step of the way, it's not just going to be given to you."
It's not just your standard coach-speak.
Consider that Battle Mountain has won the Class 4A title in two of the last three years and qualified for NXN in 2017 and 2018. The title isn't guarantee.
Niwot understands the danger of looking ahead and taking their opponents for granted, though.
"You gotta eat the elephant one bite at a time," the senior McDonald said. "At every level there's going to be competition. Every single race, we expect and hope they are at their best. We don't analyze the teams or think about who's ranked higher."
As for their own eighth-place rank in the current national standings, the girls said they do their best to "ignore the noise" and keep it all in perspective.
"Rankings are more of a parent and grandparent thing," McDonald said. "Pressure is more from the outside in, our attitude is more from the inside out. We have pressure to support each other and run well."
Christensen argues the season has played out just as planned.
"I like the first half where we fell off the map," he said. "It allowed us to not worry about rankings. Any time we have athletes who are worried that we're not in the Southwest Top 5, you're focused on the wrong things."
For now, Niwot's attention is on staying healthy and achieving their goal of retaining their CHSAA Class 4A title.
The Cougars are fully aware that as the 2019 season developed, their position changed from the hunter to the hunted.
Winning state will require max effort, or as Christensen puts it, "being on edge."
Forgive the Niwot girls, however, if for just one minute the team allows their thoughts to drift to Arizona and a chance to qualify for nationals at NXR Southwest.
"Our attention is on state," Dishon said. "But it will be super cool to run against Mountain Vista."
In a few weeks, the squad will certainly get their chance to do just that.