JOSHUA BUCK
Niwot’s Dillon Manzanares, right, finds running room as he rushes for a first down against Greeley Central at Everly-Montgomery Field on Thursday. Manzanares is one of the state’s leaders with 553 rushing yards through three games.

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NIWOT — It wasn’t long ago that the Niwot football program was a powerhouse.

In 2004, the Cougars were one of the best teams in Class 3A, taking an undefeated record into the state semifinals before being upset.

The next couple of years were pretty good, too, as Niwot dominated 3A competition, and even made the playoffs after a leap to Class 4A.

Niwot has fallen on hard times of late, however. The Cougars managed just one win in 2010.

Still, head coach Ron Tesone knows the Cougars can reverse their fortune, and senior running back Dillon Manzanares is a big reason for his optimism.

“You come watch him on a Friday night and the young kids want to be Dillon,” Tesone said. “That says it all. People get excited to watch him play. You need components like that to rebuild these kinds of programs. We’re lucky to have him.”

Manzanares isn’t big — he stands 5-foot-8 and weighs 150 — but he is, without question, the key to Niwot finding success on the field this season.

Through three games, Manzanares is among the state leaders with 553 rushing yards. He’s also scored five touchdowns for the Cougars, who have beaten two of their three opponents (yet sit at 1-2 because they had to forfeit one win for playing an ineligible player).

“It’s a lot of fun,” Manzanares said of the season he’s having so far. “Our line gets a pretty good push and you just see the seams, and there’s been some pretty good openings so far.”

Manzanares flashed his big-play ability in a 21-14 loss to Greeley Central last week. He had touchdown runs of 80 and 74 yards en route to a 248-yard night.

Manzanares is a tremendous athlete who finished second at the Class 4A state meet in the pole vault in the spring. He is hoping his training from track and field can help him stay healthy this season.

“Pole vaulting, you have to have a pretty strong upper body and core, and I think that also helps with leading to no injuries during the season,” he said.

He admitted he “faded” down the stretch in 2010. Although he did finish with 820 yards, only 245 of those came in the final six games.

Both he and Tesone, however, believe his body is better equipped to handle the rigors of a 10-game season this fall.

“We’re a little deeper this year, so he’s not playing as much (on defense), which we hope helps,” Tesone said. “He’s in great shape and hopefully we can block against some bigger opponents and cross our fingers, really.”

Although the Cougars have other good players, including Nate Merriman, who returned as the starting quarterback, Manzanares is the main cog in the offense. Niwot had 348 yards in total offense against Greeley Central, with 266 of those coming from Manzanares. He touched the ball on 22 of the 51 offensive plays.

“He needs to touch the ball,” Tesone said. “Teams are going to key on him, yet you’ve still got to get him the ball.”

That’s fine with Manzanares, who wants to do all he can to help the Cougars win.

“I have a 1,500-yard goal this year, so I’m hoping to reach that,” he said. “Yards matter more to me than touchdowns. We score as a team, but driving (down the field), the yards tell you if you actually succeeded as a team.

“(Tesone) is constantly coming up with new ways to get me in the open field. Hopefully I can put it in the end zone after that.”

Manzanares doesn’t just strive for perfection in athletics. He’s had just two Bs during his high school years, with the rest being As, he said. He has also qualified for the Boettcher Scholarship, which, if he gets it, would lead to a full-ride scholarship to any state school. He is looking into becoming a biochemical engineer.

“He’s very well-rounded and works very hard,” Tesone said.

Right now, that’s paying off for the Cougars, who hope to get the most of Manzanares during his final season.

“We’ve had some great backs here in the past,” Tesone said. “Dillon is right up there. He runs so explosively.

“If anybody gets a chance to see him, it’s a real joy.”

Brian Howell can be reached at bhowell@times-call.com.