* Photo Credit: Bryan Deibel/Milesplit
- - -
"I just kept reminding them -- not just in running, either -- of their worth and their identity and who they are and who they were created to be. Those consistent reminders of worth were a big part of our team. The numbers on a stop watch don't define you." -- Greg Coplen
- - -
It wasn't so long ago when the Valor Christian girls cross country team was searching for an identity.
No surprise, that was about the time Greg Coplen took over.
Seven years later, the native Texan has had plenty of time to think about that long process after securing one of the program's biggest accomplishments yet: The team's first qualification to Nike Cross Nationals following a second-place performance at NXR Southwest on November 23 in Casa Grande, Arizona.
"It's been one building block on top of another," Coplen said recently.
No doubt, one of the surprise performances of regionals thus far has been the Eagles. The Highlands Ranch, Colorado-based program overcame a deficit against one of Colorado's best teams to gain automatic inclusion into NXN, held annually in Portland, Oregon. And behind seventh-place finisher Lanie Szuch and two others inside the top 20, Valor Christian scored 119 points, giving the Eagles an 11-point safety net from third-place Niwot.
"Shout out to coach, too," senior Ashley Jones said after the team's finish. "He's been pushing us hard. He's had our best interests at heart. And he believes in us more than sometimes we believe in ourselves sometimes. And that's kind of what it takes to get here, and then to get to NXN."
"We've been training hard, getting ready for NXR," Taylor Whitfield, who was 18th overall, added. "Doing workouts that keep us sharp and ready to run fast and strong."
But Saturday was special in that it was really the first time all season Valor Christian saw the fruits of its labor pay off. The Eagles won just a single meet in 2019 -- a nine-team league meet in September.
For much of the season, the squad was sometimes fifth or sixth best.
Two of its runners on Saturday, Szuch and Isabella Prosceno, weren't even eligible over the fall. Part of that was due to Colorado High School Activities Association policy.
Szuch, who arrived from Evergreen, and junior Isabella Prosceno, who enrolled from Palmer Ridge, had to run jayvee due to recent rule changes with the CHSAA that prevented transfers -- athletes who changed schools though not via a permanent move -- from competing at the varsity level for a full calendar year.
And so the Eagles' depth was challenged in most of the meets they ran.
The program finished fifth at Liberty Bell, sixth at Desert Twilight, third at regions and sixth at the CHSAA Class 5A Championships, behind all the teams it had already faced in 2019 -- Arapahoe and Cherry Creek and Cherokee Trail and Mountain Vista, and even Fairview.
And maybe doubt crept into their minds at some point. Some may have questioned whether they had the talent to compete with the thoroughbreds of Colorado, even those in the Southwest Region.
But despite those losses, Coplen continued to remind the team of the bigger plan. And as a coach, he made sure the program was healthy, substituting hard running days for training on an Alter G, or in the pool with an aqua belt. He believed that type of cross-training supplemented the aerobic fitness the team was doing on a weekly basis. Very few times did his girls team train over 30 miles a week, he said.
Beyond just the training aspect, Coplen also had a unique voice that grounded this team over times of doubt. He's the campus chaplain at Valor Christian.
"I just kept reminding them -- not just in running, either -- of their worth and their identity and who they are and who they were created to be," he said. "Those consistent reminders of worth were a big part of our team. The numbers on a stop watch don't define you."
Because NXN races were not governed by the CHSAA, athletes in good standing with their high schools could compete with varsity in regional and national competitions. Coplen knew that was his team's chance to fully realize their potential.
He was reminded of that fact when Szuch went 17:34.86 and Prosceno ran 18:58.98 for 5K in an Open race at the Nike Desert Twilight Invitational in September.
"When she (Szuch) ran that race, I knew that she was going to be up there with Taylor and Brooke," Coplen said.
At that point, the more the merrier up top. Taylor Whitfield, a junior, went on to win her region and finished fifth at state. Brooke Wilson, a freshman, was second at region and third at state. Jones had gone 18:54.53 at Desert Twilight, too.
On a perfect day, this team could contend with some of the best teams. But second?
Even that was a little contentious.
"I thought if we raced perfectly, I thought we would finish third," Coplen said, honestly. "I thought we would get beat. The second place was a bit of a surprise. But it was a really nice surprise."
Lucky for Valor Christian, the variables came together on race day. Jones PR'ed by 20 seconds. Both Whitfield and Wilson broke 18 minutes. Szuch and Prosceno also had season best times.
"We really knew we had to show up today," Jones said of the performance. "And I think we all did show up. We've been working so hard for this. Bringing that tenacity and drive today was definitely more than we ran at state. To have these two on our squad made a difference for sure."
And now it's on to NXN.
While the season hasn't been one giant win after another, the Eagles aren't worried about place anymore.
By now, they've begun to capture their own idea of who the Valor Christian girls cross country team can be in the future.