NIWOT — All eyes are on Niwot.
The Cougars are coming off their first state gymnastics title in 15 years and the expectations, like for any defending champion in any sport, are naturally going to be a little higher.
Every season is a marathon, but the 2016 campaign for Niwot may be more like a 300 meter hurdles event, with every obstacle along the way a different predicament.
Early season injuries and a re-structured Class 4A field have made the task of repeating that much harder, but it is a challenge new head coach Marisa Purcell and her girls welcome.
"We've spent the off-season just focusing on individual skills," said Purcell, who will be without seniors Hannah McDonald (injury will limit her time) and Marissa Koski (out for the season).
Purcell's focus is not on what the Cougars don't have, but what they do, and making sure her team is at its best when they get to the state meet at Thornton High School in November.
"Every year is the challenge of a new team and getting them to come together and work together in order to compete as a team," said Purcell, who will be joined in 4A this season by Loveland and Green Mountain, both of which are moving down from 5A. "And go to state and be contenders."
Sophomore Lindsay Chohon has put in a lot of hard work since the end of the last season and has a chance to make some noise in the all-around competition. She is joined by returning state qualifiers Erica Bartfeldt, Alexis Carroll, Lilliana Martin and Amelia Sears.
The final piece of the Niwot puzzle is freshman Taylor Green, who Purcell said is already looking great in practice and is excited to have her as part of this team.
Even with the noticeable missing pieces, the Cougars are quietly confident in their ability and that is something that comes with experience.
"I remind them, too, to stay humble, because there are so many elemental things that can change in one season," Purcell said. "We do talk about what we are capable of doing and I think they know, that is the confidence, in what you are capable of.
"From the beginning of the season to the end, it's a learning process of what works and what doesn't; and then what each individual girl brings to the table."
And what some of them may bring will be a product of having just witnessed the dominance of the United States women's team at the Summer Games in Rio.
"As coaches, we all get together to watch and just watch how they do things and take notes," Purcell said. "It's just that new element of excitement, that when you see something different, you can guarantee the girls are in the gym the next day trying certain things."
The Cougars open up their state title defense Thursday night at Rocky Mountain against Fort Collins at 6 p.m.