Since the cross country program began in 2013, Paonia has qualified just two teams for state competition -- a boys' team in 2013, and a girls' team in 2016.
This year, Paonia appears primed to send both teams to state. Third-year head coach Brandy Sparks said she believes the teams will not only qualify for state, but have a strong showing and finish among the top five teams in Class 2A.
At the start of the season the boys' team "came to me and let me know that this is what they're going to do," said Sparks. If last Saturday's season-opening performance at the Basalt Longhorn Cross Country Invitational is any indication, that's what they'll do.
Four Paonia runners finished in the top 20, led by third-year senior Ben O'Rourke's ninth-place finish and junior Ethan Bartlett's 10th place. Bartlett has showed the most improvement over last year, said Sparks. He improved over last year's 85th place time by almost four minutes.
Junior Harley Ewert, a returning state qualifier, placed 16th at Basalt -- an improvement over his 2016 40th place finish. In his first race at Basalt, junior Elijah Evans placed 18th.
Caden Meilner was the only state qualifier for Paonia last season after finishing 10th at the Region 4 meet. Also the Eagles starting quarterback, Meilner missed the meet due to Friday's game at Centauri. He shouldn't have anymore scheduling conflicts and is expected to finish out the season, said Sparks.
Senior Dominic Limone is a third-year runner for Paonia, and Hunter Norris, Calvin Reese and Michael Hoffman return for a second season. Two seniors, Orin Blankenship and Antonio Gonzales, are new to the team. If she were to put her five-member varsity team together today, said Sparks, Gonzalez would be on it.
The girls returns four state-qualifying runners: Brooke Hillman, Nora Dransfield, Alexandra "Alex" Eaton and Katya Schwieterman.
Schwieterman and Hillman led the team at Basalt, placing 10th and 12th respectively. Schwieterman's time of 22 minutes, 33 seconds is almost a full three minutes ahead of her 2016 time. "She is very strong and right on Brooke's heels," said Sparks ahead of the race. "She's got some fight in her."
Hillman, a two-time state qualifier and multiple state track qualifier, is motivated to improve after deciding to run in college, said Sparks. "She has some pretty high goals this year."
Eaton finished 29th at Basalt, and almost a full minute faster than last year.
Abby Reedy, the only freshman on the team, finished 39th out of 54 runners.
First-year senior Jordan Evans will run her first 5k this Saturday at the Devil's Thumb Hill Climb at Devil's Thumb Golf Course in Delta. For a first-year runner, she's very strong, said Sparks, and could easily be a top-five runner by the end of the season.
Assistant coaches Shauna Meilner and Will Forest both bring experience and enthusiasm to the program, said Sparks. With different coaching techniques and ways of relating to students, "It's a great coaching team."
Sparks said that in scheduling meets she selected a variety of courses, from the more level courses like Confluence Park in Delta and Connected Lakes in Fruita, to more hilly, technical courses like the Hotchkiss Invitational on Sept. 9.
Devil's Thumb is a new course for Paonia. The course race begins on the golf course and winds its way up the surrounding dobie hills for an experience not to be forgotten.
The race should help runners understand where they are in their training, and to see what times they can aim for as the season progresses, said Sparks.