The Eagles had to hit the ground running. And fast.
Paonia began the cross-country running season last week, not getting much practice time as the Eagles open the year Saturday morning at Central High School's meet at Matchett Park in Grand Junction.
"They've literally hit the ground running," first-year coach Brandy Sparks said. "They've done some challenging things already and have risen to the occasion, so we're real proud of them. We have some real potential."
Sparks came to Paonia via Splendora, Texas, and Dallas Baptist University, where she ran three years for the Patriots.
"I really want to help these kids have a passion for running," Sparks said. "If we win, we win. But more importantly, if they walk away feeling like they've accomplished something, and they've really pushed themselves hard, and they've given their best, that's all I can ask. And hopefully they still love to run."
Both the boys' and girls' squads have leaders to rely on this season, beginning with senior standout Chelsea Meilner.
"We're so excited to have Chelsea Meilner back," Sparks said. "She went to state last year, and we're expecting to see that happen again."
Meilner is a three-time individual qualifier for the state championship, posting a ninth-place showing last year to finish on the podium.
"For the girls, we have a new runner, Brooke Hillman, who was very successful in distance for track, and we're excited to see what she does," Sparks said. "Megan Limone is the other senior this year, and we hope for good things from her."
The Eagles have a strong returning duo for the boys' team along with a handful of talented newcomers.
"For our senior leader we have John Deck," Sparks said. "He's got experience that will help us. And Tim Helmer has been real impressive. He's come in strong and is in great shape, and I'm excited to see what he's going to do."
With talent coming back and momentum building from past years' successes, Sparks is clear about her goals for the team this season.
"I definitely want to win," Sparks said. "We're excited about both the girls' and the boys' teams. We've got some really strong runners on the girls' side, and I would like to see them go to state as a team. As a winning goal, that's what I would like."
The Eagles will be helped by a strong sense of family in the cross-country community.
"I always like to stress the cross country family," assistant coach Shauna Meilner said. "It's a comprehensive sport in my mind. We do team dinners, and we incorporate other things about fitness and nutrition and staying healthy. We do bonfires and watch movies and encourage family-type bonding. We're a family."
The Eagles open the season Saturday then will build toward regionals on Friday, Oct. 23 in Delta.
"To go to state it's all about regionals," Sparks said. "In cross-country, it all boils down to regionals, you have to finish number one or two. That's when we need to have our best runs to get to state as an individual and as a team."
The seventh annual Eckert Crane Days, the annual viewing of the sandhill cranes migrating north from New Mexico through Colorado's West Slope, will be March 16-18. Representatives from the Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society (BCAS) will be at the viewing site east of Eckert at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, 9 to 11 a.m. each day, to answer questions and provide binoculars and spotting scopes.