* Photo by MileSplit's Bryan Deibel
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CASA GRANDE, ARIZONA -- The dirt dip appeared for Eliza Arrington, and then so did three more girls.
Roughly 200 meters remained at NXR Southwest on Saturday.
It was at that point that the Highland Lone Peak (UT) High School junior, the reigning Class 6A champion in Utah and the Knights' No. 1 point scorer, began to run through all the immediate scenarios in her head.
Where am I going to finish?
"I said, 'Oh shoot, it's time to go,'" Arrington said later. "I just gave every last ounce I had. I was just focusing on the finish line, just trying to make it to that."
So on she went, and finish second overall in 17:18.83 she did, but there was also something more to that moment: Arrington's swift sprint to the line represented a capital move for Lone Peak.
In one fell swoop, the program became just the third girls team from Utah -- not named American Fork or Davis -- to ever get out of the region, winning with 122 points. The Knights were fourth in 2018.
Cherry Creek's Riley Stewart, who was undefeated all season and ranked No. 12 nationally, also remained victorious on Saturday, winning comfortably in 17:03.8.
Coming Sunday: The NXR Southwest Boys Recap
"To come back this year and to show that I've earned it and that I should belong in Portland is really cool," said Stewart, who earned her first region win a year after finishing seventh as a freshman. "...I really felt like I needed to prove myself after Roy Griak and all the races. I just needed to prove that I belong here. I just wanted to go out and do my best on this."
Lone Peak, which was ranked No. 15 nationally entering the meet, was the day's best story -- and earned itself a bump up with the effort. Utah's top large school program hadn't raced since Oct. 23.
But it didn't matter.
Behind Arrington's career best effort for 5K and four girls in the top 30, Lone Peak capitalized on its best race of 2019, topping second-place Valor Christian (160), third-place Niwot (177) and fourth-place Cherry Creek (226).
Those were all stories of their own.
From the out-of-nowhere but-not-really automatic bid from Valor Christian, which ran two athletes for the first time this season -- both Lanie Szuch, who finished seventh, and Isabella Prosceno, who was 55th, were ineligible in Colorado this season due to transfer rules, but nevertheless were gifted varsity runners -- to the third-place finish of Niwot, which many expected to win the region out right, things didn't exactly go to plan in the final moments.
One of the pre-race favorites, Desert Vista's Lauren Ping, struggled with heat and needed Arrington's displacement with Lone Peak's automatic team berth, to qualify individually after finishing sixth in 17:22.1. She said afterward that it took all she could to just finish.
"There was a pack of six of us going down the last little bit there," said Ping, who qualified for her third straight NXN. "And I just kind of felt dead down the last stretch."
Largely, though, it was Arrington and Lone Peak which skipped past convention thinking. Few would have thought the junior would have been this good on this day, with a previous best of 17:59.50 for 5K from the Bob Firman Invitational on September 21.
But throughout the race on Saturday, Arrington never lost control. She stuck on Stewart like glue.
And when Stewart, who leaned on her long, gaping stride on a course that was built for speed, made a move, so did she.
"Racing is always hard," Arrington said. "Sometimes it's hard to gauge between races the pain. It felt comfortably hard. That's a term my coach uses all the time."
Lone Peak junior Reagan Gardner was 15th in 17:50.9, while Eliza Mason was 22nd and Mackenzie Meldrum was 29th. Monet Winger finished out the scoring in 56th-place.
Stewart's win, though, was another reminder just how good she's become in 2019.
From her breakthrough win at Roy Griak in September, to her region and Class 5A state wins in Colorado, she's been slowly showing the country just how dangerous she is on any given day.
"It's felt really good, because I've PR'ed by almost 30 seconds in all my races this year," she said.
And even in the case of Niwot, there's little to be dismayed by. Just like last year, Niwot finished third. But that season went on to see the Cougars finish fifth at NXN after being picked as an at-large. History, then, seems to be in the team's favor.
Niwot head coach Kelly Christensen said afterward that he felt promise of the team's outlook -- a little reworking here or there, and Niwot wins that race.
The Colorado squad was out fast and led in the first mile. It held on for as long as it could in the second, but the pack ran out of steam before the finish. Junior Lucca Fulkerson led the program with an 13th-place finish in 17:49.8. Senior Samrawit Dishon was 19th in 17:56.8.
As it stands, the Southwest Region actually has a lot of good mojo.
Not only has Niwot been one of the best teams in the country for much of the year -- with a big win at Woodbridge to its credit -- but fourth-place Cherry Creek has an argument to be made about its hopes, too.
The Colorado team beat NXR Heartland winner Edina and NXR Midwest winner Naperville North at Roy Griak.