COLORADO SPRINGS — The rugged cross country course at the Norris Penrose Event Center punished Niwot's Cruz Culpepper last year, and that salty feeling lasted nearly 365 days.
On Saturday at the 4A state championships, Culpepper was poised to punch back.
Eyeing a classification record set by Valor Christian's Cole Sprout in 2017, Culpepper executed the race he wanted and found himself sprinting into the stadium finish with nothing but patted-down dirt under and around him.
A 44th-place finish as a sophomore was long gone, and Culpepper realized his goal as the junior captured the individual state title — Niwot's first for the boys — in 15 minutes, 48 seconds.
It turned out to be the start of a phenomenal finish for the Cougars. As perhaps was expected, Ares Reading joined Culpepper in the middle of the stage with his second-place finish, and the NHS girls saw through their goal of winning their first state title. A bit of a twist, however, involved a 1-2 individual finish with Layla Roebke and Taylor James that allowed NHS to beat out Battle Mountain.
Roebke joined Elise Cranny as Niwot's only individual girls champions.
Culpepper and Reading had dominated many a race this season, and Thompson Valley's Dylan Schubert was the only other individual that had a chance to ruin their 1-2 finish. Reading, a senior, held off the Eagles junior and also allowed Cupepper to fly unvouched to the finish.
Sitting in the top-10 finisher's area, Culpepper scowled and raised a hard fist knowing he had conquered some demons.
"Mentally, I think it just gave me an edge because I was fired up knowing that I had not ever ran well here," Culpepper said. "Really, that motivation gave me an advantage today.
"It means a lot to finish the year like this. I won every race I ran in Colorado, I ran really fast in (the Desert Twilight meet in Arizona), so I am just really satisfied with this."
Reading was happy for one of his best friends, a younger brother of sorts who he has worn out tracks all over the state with. And for himself? Reading finished out his best season ever with his best state finish, going sub-16 minutes.
"I feel like this season has been the best for both of us, individually and as a duo, so coming into today we just wanted to cap it off as best we could," Reading said. "Our goal was to go 1-2 to try and get an edge on (other teams) early. I was super excited for Cruz, because he was not happy last year. You could tell he was enjoying himself today."
"Schubert knew he had to push the pace early, and I saw the faces on Cruz and Ares ... they were in pain," Niwot head coach Kelly Christensen said. "They fought really had in the last mile, and we focused on just giving yourself a chance."
The boys did not get to celebrate the team goal they were hoping, placing fifth overall in a stacked 4A field. But Niwot did have to run without Jack Volf, a key component as Niwot's frequent third man.
Roebke also had Christensen jumping for joy. A senior who transferred in from Coronado because of a family move, Roebke packed with James and found a kick at the end to enter the stadium finish all alone.
James also had separation with Battle Mountain's Naomi Harding, also entering the stadium finish alone. And then, it was the Cougars depth that paid off.
Joelle McDonald, Samrawit Dishon and Maggie Smith all placed in the top 20, and Niwot's 47 points bettered Battle Mountain's 57.
"Anytime you score under 60 in a meet like this and lose, that's hard," Christensen said of the Huskies, the two-time defending champs. "That just shows how much our girls fought for each other. They knew that on any day, any one of them could win a race."
Cranny, who recently placed third at the Pac-12 women's cross country championships for Stanford as a senior, won two individual titles for NHS in 2012 and 2013.
Roebke was elated to join her in school annals.
"I think we all felt really strong just because of the way we train together and pack together," Roebke said. "It makes us mentally stronger and physically stronger and it made us feel good coming in. Together, we knew we could all run good for our team.
"For me, I thought that if I went out there with them I'd be able to place high and run for them. I didn't know how far anyone was behind me, but I knew someone was and just thought, 'I have to finish and I have to keep going'."
Colorado State Cross Country Championships
At Norris Penrose Event Center
Team scores — Dakota Ridge 47, Mountain Vista 76, Heritage 115, Legend 151, Fairview 170, Castle View 203, Fort Collins 208, Regis Jesuit 251, Chaparral 276, Pine Creek 283, Smoky Hill 288, Loveland 296, Monarch 299, Arapahoe 300, Overland 349, Boulder 363, Ralston Valley 371, Arvada West 396, Fossil Ridge 436, Poudre 523.
Top 10 individuals — 1. Cole Sprout, Valor Christian, 15:16; 2. Connor Ohlson, Dakota Ridge, 15:40; 3. Austin Vancil, Dakota Ridge, 15:42; 4. Parker Wolfe, Cherry Creek, 15:56; 5. Yonas Mogos, Gateway, 16:10; 6. Gus McIntyre, Palmer, 16:11; 7. Ian Kelly, Heritage, 16:14; 8. Ryan Johnson, Legend, 16:16; 9. Cole Nash, Chatfield, 16:17; 10. Jacob White, Dakota Ridge, 16:20.
Boulder scorers — Lukas Haug 16:37, Julian Schima 17:15, Carson McCue 17:47, Gavin Geer 18:19, Deven Bynum 18:39.
Broomfield result — James Thomas 17:26.
Fairview scorers — Brock Granberg 16:59, Henry Murphy 17:00, Anders Cote 17:00, Wiley Feiger 17:12, Christian Castellino 17:20.
Legacy results — Parker Lee 16:41, Ryan Montera 17:02.
Monarch scorers — Avery Conaghan 17:00; Luke Johnson 17:03, Paxton Hansburg 17:26, Reed Henderson 17:52, Preston Stecklein 18:02.
Team scores — Centaurus 63, Palmer Ridge 99, Air Academy 106, Durango 111, Niwot 136, Cheyenne Mountain 170, Battle Mountain 235, Silver Creek 249, Grand Junction Central 252, Coronado 268, Golden 294, Erie 302, Thompson Valley 311, Eagle Valley 324, Widefield 341, Littleton 412, Lewis-Palmer 438, Standley Lake 492, Fort Morgan 549, Northfield 597.
Top 10 individuals — 1. Cruz Culpepper, Niwot, 15:48; 2. Ares Reading 15:58; 3. Dylan Schubert, Thompson Valley, 16:02; 4. Henry Barth, Glenwood Springs, 16:08; 5. Cooper Brown, Centaurus, 16:11; 6. Brandon Hippe, Palmer Ridge, 16:!7; 7. Dillon Powell, Air Academy, 16:21; 8. Simon Kelati, Greeley Central, 16:23; 9. Matthew Roberds, Mesa Ridge, 16:29; 10. Torey Puckett, Centaurus, 16:32.
Other Centaurus scorers — Kyle Piper 16:42, Henry Bowman 16:53, James Overberg 17:01.
Erie scorers — Jamison Cartwright 16:53, Timothy Fritsche 17:50, Aleander Walker 17:56, Luke Fritsche 18:04, Adam Garcia 18:06.
Mead results — Keegan Caldwell 17:30, Hunter Payne 17:54.
Other Niwot scorers — Zane Bergen 17:26, Benjamin Bi 17:28, Caleb Bishop 17:29.
Silver Creek scorers — John Moroney 16:49, Henry Terhaar 16:54, Hogan Boyle 17:16, Dylan Oliver 17:37, Patrick Ash 19:42.
Skyline result — Ryan Primeau 18:11.
Team scores — Peak to Peak 76, Salida 80, The Classical Academy 107, Alamosa 149, SkyView Academy 184, Gunnison 194, Holy Family 197, Frontier Academy 206, University 251, Berthoud 269, Jefferson Academy 281, Moffat County 295, Faith Christian 351, Liberty Common 359, Elizabeth 410, Pagosa Springs 419, Aspen 425, Colorado Academy 437, Englewood 483, Woodland Park 490.
Top 10 individuals — 1. Mason Norman, Classical Academy, 15:33; 2. Camden Gillis, Salida, 16:18; 3. William Ledden, Peak to Peak 16:23; 4. Elijah DeLaCerda, Alamosa, 16:28; 5. Jaden Davis, Frontier Academy, 16:36; 6. Owen Nolan, SkyView Academy, 16:36; 7. Tyler Scholl, SkyView Academy, 16:36; 8. Yasin Sado, KIPP Denver Collegiate, 16:36; 9. Wyatt Mortenson, Moffat County, 16:37. 10. Nathan Bone, Classical Academy, 16:38.
Holy Family scorers — Christian Montoya 16:54, Jack Culp, 17:38, Braden Bartlett, 17:52, Andrew Descalzo 17:57, Jonah Munoz 18:10.
Jefferson Academy scorers — Evan Mills 17:36, Jacob Crookston 17:46, Cole Reisdorf 18:06, Blake Robinson 18:28, Michael Leoni 18:35.
Other Peak to Peak scorers — Justin Hager 16:56, Ethan Monarski 16:58, Ryan Kuykendall 17:20, Cole Beasley 17:27.
Team scores — Heritage Christian 12, Lyons 38, Peyton 47, Colorado Rocky Mountain 85, Ouray 88, Telluride 89, Centauri 96, Buena Vista 98, Paonia 109, Rye 114, Twin Peak Charter 114, Golden View Classical Academy 115, Crested Butte 118, Clear Creek 122, Ellicott 123, Byers 150, St. Mary's 167, Kiowa 201,
Top 10 individuals — 1. Seth Bruxvoort, Heritage Christian, 16:09; 2. Micah Zeller, Custer County, 16:25; 3. Isaac Roberts, Lyons, 16:36; 4. Levi Kilian, Heritage Christian, 16:55; 5. Ethan Bartlett, Paonia, 17:01; 6. Noel Lopez, Rocky Ford, 17:13; 7. Max Saliman, Shining Mountain, 17:14; 8. Jaden Evans, Telluride, 17:18; 9. Cooper Rondinelli, Ouray, 17:21; 10. Andre Stablein, Front Range Christian, 17:27.
Other Lyons scorers — Colton Jonjak-Plahn 17:53, Simon Stone 18:44.
Twin Peak Charter scorers — Andy Hernandez 18:45, John Morkunas 18:45, Garrett Provow 19:52.