Caden Meilner never expected to make it to the state cross country championship.
"This is something I do kind of on the side. It helps me stay strong for football and wrestling," Meilner said after crossing the finish line at last Friday's 2A regional cross country race at Confluence Park in Delta.
The sophomore from Paonia ran a personal record time of 17 minutes, 18.60 seconds, good for a 13th place finish in the race that qualified him for this weekend's state championship.
"I didn't really pace well at the beginning," Meilner said. "I had a fast first mile but kind of slowed down and when I realized I had to pass some people, I really pushed for a kick at the end."
Meilner turned on the afterburners in the final stretch and passed three runners to move into position to qualify for state. The top 15 individual runners made the cut.
"This season I hadn't really worked on that, but I knew if I wanted to pass people, I would have to really kick it at the end. I guess it worked," Meilner said. "I was right on the edge there for a while so it's kind of the icing on the cake."
As a team, the Eagles fell short of their goal to qualify for the state race, but all of the young runners showed marked improvement over the year, establishing a strong base to build on next season.
Tim Helmer capped his marvelous season with a time of 18:17.66 and finished 28th. Ben O'Rourke ran across the line next, for Paonia at 19:48.38 and Bo Pipher ended his cross country efforts with a time of 19:51.52.
Ethan Bartlett (21:27.89), Dominic Limone (22:46.02) and John Deck rounded out the Eagles' team score at regionals.
"Our guys had a really strong day, all of them put up great times," Meilner said. "It was just great to be a part of it."
The top four of 11 boys' teams at the regional race qualified for state, which turned out to be Mancos, Ouray, Telluride and Crested Butte. Paonia finished seventh right behind North Fork rival Hotchkiss, which was sixth.
The Bulldogs' young core of runners has years of success to look forward to and came just seconds short of qualifying for state.
"They're all young runners. They're just good runners," said Andrew Oviedo, the lone Bulldogs senior this season. "Knowing that a lot of them are younger than myself, I think a lot of them kick themselves and see it as a disappointment that they didn't make it. Me being an outgoing senior, I see it as an optimistic point to learn from."
Gabe Rodriguez completed an outstanding running season and finished 18th with his time of 17:42.60. His brother Sam Rodriguez was right behind him, which happened a lot this year, and posted a solid time of 17:45.05.
Zack Allen finished next for the Bulldogs at 17:52.55. Parker Katzdorn (19:50.47), Oviedo (20:12.66), Nick Jung (20:14.00), Trenton Carr (20:30.21) and Myles Zoutte (21:15.88) completed the boys' team score for Hotchkiss.
"I made a point to mention before we ran that I was proud of each and every one of them and that I've had a great season with them," Oviedo said. "I feel like they're going to be amazing next year. It just really pumps me up to see them run this great, even if it didn't end the way we wanted."