For the first time since 2013, Paonia will send both cross country teams to state after strong showings in the Class 2A Region 4 competition last Friday at Confluence Park in Delta.
The Paonia girls placed four runners in the top 10 and scored 23 points to win the division, and the boys scored 38 points to finish third overall.
"They did exactly what they needed to do today," said an enthusiastic third-year head coach Brandy Sparks. "It's just so awesome to see their hard work pay off."
Paonia freshman Tawny Roberts led the girls team, placing sixth overall with a time of 20 minute, 56.35 seconds. Katya Schwieterman finished eighth in 21:12.76, Brooke Hillman placed ninth in 21:31.52, and first-year runner Jade Ellenberger finished 16th with a time of 22:48.89.
If the name Tawny Roberts isn't familiar to followers of Paonia cross country, the freshman joined the team two weeks ago, said Sparks.
"It's been a fun two weeks," said Roberts, who plays club soccer with DC Force in the fall. Roberts joined the team after the soccer season ended. Roberts said she's often encouraged to run competitively, and that the team has been very welcoming.
She surprised herself with her regional finish, but Roberts said she also set a goal of keeping up with the top runners.
Sparks said she tries to recruit all freshmen and new students to the cross country team. Without knowing what her abilities were, Sparks approached Roberts at the beginning of the school year. She plays club soccer and shows pigs on a national level, "So she's really busy," said Sparks.
A week before fall break, Roberts expressed an interest in joining the team. After determining that she could make the required number of practices before Friday's regional race, Sparks asked each team member if they would support Roberts joining the team, and told them it's their decision. She could be a factor in qualifying for state, but also could bump other runners.
"Every single one of them was real supportive," said Sparks. They agreed that if Roberts is what the team needs to qualify for state, then they are all for it.
Roberts' first official time came in the regional meet, but Sparks brought the team to the Confluence Park course over fall break. In a trial run, Roberts finished first among the girls.
"That's when I was like, 'Okay, we have something crazy going on,'" said Sparks. Roberts first run was at the Montrose Relays, a fun day of racing traditionally held the week before regional competition. Running three, one-mile legs a piece, Roberts and Schwieterman placed fifth.
Roberts is ranked 15th by Mile Split heading into state competition. Start time for the girls race is 10:00 a.m.
Senior Caden Meilner led the Paonia boys to a third-place finish and state qualification.
The regional start was really fast, said Meilner. "Everybody just shows up here," unlike track, where each meet offers an opportunity to qualify for state competition, the adrenaline is going and everyone is looking for his best race of the year.
"It's what gets you to state," said Meilner, a three-time state qualifier for Paonia. "It all depends on this meet."
Soroco's Ben Kelley won the race in 15:52.53. With this week's state meet marking Meilner's final high school cross country race, "I just want to do really well." He credited the team's state qualification on his teammates for "stepping up in ways I didn't" and running a strong race.
Four of Paonia's runners placed in the top 20. Juniors Harley Ewert and Ethan Bartlett set new personal records. Ewert placed 15th, dipping below the 18-minute mark for the first time with a personal best time of 17:58.30, one step ahead of Bartlett's time of 17:58.55.
First-year sophomore Logan Green was the last top-20 finisher for Paonia, crossing the finish line in 18:43.15 to place 18th.
In a sprint to the finish, senior Ben O'Rourke edged sophomore Elijah Evans for 22nd place and a state berth with a time of 18:54.20, with Evans clocking in at 18:54.27 for 23rd place.
Sparks praised both teams for a great season. She ran in college and puts her runners through college-level workouts (with Fridays reserved for Ultimate Frisbee). They never complain, she said, and they constantly cheer each other on and lift each other up. "It's just very special what they have," she said. "That's the reason why they've done so good. They're constantly pushing each other to be better."
The boys took it upon themselves at the beginning of the season to make a team state qualification their goal. "Actually, I think they said they wanted to be in the top five," said Sparks. "I'm still going to hold them to that."
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.